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FAREED ZAKARIA GPS
Crisis in Haiti; Barack Obama: Year One
Aired January 24, 2010 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria.
We see Barack Obama from two lenses this week. On the one hand, he's the president, directing America's formidable might to ease the plight of millions in Haiti. On the other, he is the de facto head of the Democratic Party, a party that just suffered a major electoral loss.
There's lots of analysis of what went wrong for the Democrats, of whether the country is in ideological terms to the left or to the right, and what all this means for Obama's presidency. Is he a lame duck?
So, let's start with some historical perspective. Obama's approval ratings one year into his tenure are roughly the same as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter's were. The two Bushes had higher ratings -- 41 because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and 44 because of 9/11 and the rallying effect that had on the presidency.
So, Obama's situation is not dramatically worse than many of his predecessors, which means it can be corrected.
But what should he do? I would put it very simply. Obama needs to start acting like a president, and particularly the president he campaigned to become.
For the last six months, Barack Obama has seemed to be not a president, but a prime minister. He has not outlined a broad vision for the country and put forward grand plans to solve the nation's problems.
Instead his White House has been busy slicing and dicing its programs to pick up a congressional vote here and there, so utterly involved in the minutiae of the legislative process that it has lost sight of the broader public. In the process of making legislation -- which Bismarck famously compared to making sausages -- Obama has also lost sight of his big ideas.
The health care bill was riddled with so many gifts and give- aways to special interests -- from the basic desire to avoid any hard decisions on reining in costs, to the special exemptions to five states, to the fancy deal on Cadillac plans that exempted the unions -- that few in America believed the resulting bill could truthfully be called reform.
Barack Obama campaigned as the man who would bridge the divides of right and left, reach out with ideas to red and blue America and create a United States of America.
Now, the Republicans have been very obstructionist. They have played hard-to-get. But certainly on health care, Obama never really tried to make the compromises that might have gotten some key conservatives on board.
In a recent "Wall Street Journal" poll, Obama did all right on most categories of leadership. The public still admires him as a person and as a leader. But his worst score was in response to the question, has he changed the way Washington works?
See, America wants a president who at least tries to effect that change. That's the change we all want to believe in.
Now, I have a great program for you today. On Haiti, some surprising insights from a great foreign policy thinker, Zbigniew Brzezinski. We step back and ask some bigger questions.
Then a stellar panel of writers and historians who have studied great presidencies and political movements. I've told you what I think Obama should do. We'll hear what they think.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
PEGGY NOONAN: I think we live in a time of collapsed and collapsing institutions.
ROBERT CARO: I think I'm reminded, at the end of this year, is how monumental his aims have turned out to be, and two, how hard it is to achieve them.
SAM TANENHAUS: President Obama built a movement to get himself elected, but he didn't build one to govern.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: Let's get started.
ZAKARIA: The humanitarian crisis in Haiti is still acute. And I think we all agree, we must do everything we can to alleviate the immediate suffering and help those we can.
But what of the future? We've all seen what can happen in these tragedies. At first, a massive outpouring of sympathy and aid. Once the immediate crisis has passed, everybody goes home and things recur.
What will the United do? If it chooses to stay and rebuild Haiti, it will be one more nation-building project on an already packed nation-building agenda -- Iraq, Afghanistan, maybe Yemen. Now Haiti. What is realistic? Joining me now to talk about Haiti and, of course, Obama's first year in office, we have the scholar and statesman, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor under President Jimmy Carter.
Zbig, welcome to the show.
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: It's good to be with you, Fareed.
ZAKARIA: First, answer for me that problem of what we do beyond this immediate crisis in Haiti. How should we think about this?
At one level it is a terrible humanitarian crisis. At another level, let's be honest, it is a peripheral national security problem compared with the larger ones. And so, how much attention should be devoted to it?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, I think it's quite clear that, initially, we have to make a maximum effort to help. And I feel a little frustrated by what seems to me to be a rather slow unfolding of the aid effort. It ought to be much more energetic. There ought to be someone very visibly in charge.
We don't need high-level, grandstand visits to Haiti by our foreign or domestic leaders, but we need some evidence of American direction of this effort.
Beyond that, I think we ought to have some arrangement involving the U.N., which perhaps could create some accommodation with the Haitian government, allowing for a form of transitional, international trusteeship for the recovery of Haiti. This will take a very major international effort. The United States, of course, will have to take the lead in it in terms of putting resources into it.
But I would think other countries -- particularly Latin American countries, even Central American countries -- ought to be heavily involved.
ZAKARIA: And, of course, the Brazilians were the peacekeepers. And what you're talking about, though, Zbig, is a kind of colonialism that we will never call that, because it is, you know, U.N.-mandated and international rather than one country.
Because the Haitian government, as far as I can tell, has collapsed in every sense of the word. It has collapsed physically. It has collapsed politically. And so, there is simply nothing there.
And that means you have to have some kind of, as I say, a kind of colonialism that dare not speak its name.
BRZEZINSKI: Yes. But, Fareed, I would really take exception to the word "colonialism," because colonialism implied two things: first of all, really, colonial settlements, and stuff of that sort; and secondly, imperialism, a prolonged foreign domination. I very deliberately said "transitional, international trusteeship" -- namely, under the U.N. -- and with other countries involved, not just the United States, because of the troubled history that we have with Haiti.
But I think the Haitians themselves would probably accept some arrangement of that sort. Because without it, I think recovery is going to be slow and painful, and the country is really in a dismal condition.
ZAKARIA: Zbig, if you were back in your old job, national security advisor, would you start worrying after a few weeks that this problem, this crisis was sucking up a lot of time, energy and attention of the government, which had to be focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, broader issues of relations with China, Russia, India?
BRZEZINSKI: Oh, absolutely. And this is why, if I were the national security advisor, I would say to the president, delegate the problem in Haiti to a single coordinator -- someone, presumably, with a military connection or military status, and with experience in large-scale, major, emergency undertakings.
ZAKARIA: So, when you look at Haiti, you are also a scientist, a political scientist, a scholar of comparative history. This is one of the most desperate countries in the world. Is it conceivable that, after a body blow like this, you will be able to transition to something, some stable, meaningful, political order that will endure?
BRZEZINSKI: Haiti has one very important resource, which, unfortunately, has been underutilized, but it's an important resource -- human capital.
You know, it's rather remarkable the way the Haitian communities perform in America. And there have been some studies of that. And they show that the Haitian communities, given the right opportunity, thrive, and are very dynamic and very creative. They have, actually, a kind of tradition of self-development, which is rather impressive.
I think, if the framework for that country could be, somehow or other, improved through international assistance, through some transitional arrangements which permit some U.N. supervision, I think the human capital in Haiti could help to recover and overcome the kind of obstacles and tragedies that the Haitian people have had inflicted upon them -- either by nature or by poor, oppressive, corrupt governments.
But that would require this international effort under some sort of the U.N. flag, because as you rightly said, it shouldn't be viewed as colonialism. And it could appear to be colonialism to many Haitians, if we are crude about it -- and especially if it's only us who do it.
We ought to be the major party in that effort, because most of the resources probably will have to come from us. But as you said, there is Brazil, there are other countries in the area that would be involved. The French have the moral obligation, a cultural link. They could be more involved.
So, once we let the human capital sort of assert itself, I think Haiti could be quite an attractive...
ZAKARIA: What lesson...
BRZEZINSKI: ... Caribbean country.
ZAKARIA: What lesson do you draw, Zbig, from the fact that, you look at Haiti, and then you look across the border at the Dominican Republic, and the Dominican Republic is doing rather well for a Third World country? It has a growing middle class. It's peaceful. It's stable.
How can these two countries have had such different paths?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, they have had, to some extent, slightly different political experience. The Haitians just had bad luck with some particular leaders. Then there was this even very specific phenomenon of deforestation in Haiti, which the Dominicans wisely did not emulate. And that has really damaged the agricultural base in Haiti.
ZAKARIA: But you know, there are people who make broader claims. Bret Stephens, the foreign affairs columnist for the "Wall Street Journal," says, you look at Haiti, and it is the best case against foreign aid, and that what we should learn from this is that you can pour all this money down countries like Haiti, and, really, nothing ever changes.
So, why try it one more time?
BRZEZINSKI: I think that is a dangerous argument, because it sort of suggests, subtly -- or maybe unintentionally -- a kind of human fault among the Haitians, which I certainly don't see, and which, on the contrary, as I see the Haitians themselves, I see something quite different.
I think it has much more to do with the historical context and the framework, and then, some fundamental socioeconomic errors, such as deforestation, as the causes, the more important causes of the periodic failures of Haiti. And last, but not least, perhaps even our own domination, periodic domination of the country, which wasn't always driven by the most humanitarian motives.
ZAKARIA: So, you have some -- you hold out some hope for Haiti in the medium term?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, the people. But I think the people themselves right now are too traumatized, have been so badly governed and are in such a state of shock, that they really do need immediate external assistance.
And I would like to see some visible demonstration of coordinated American effort that takes some chances, even, in the way it operates -- drops food or supplies in places which are needed, creates sort of military-controlled zones in which things are simply deployed from air and distributed even very dramatically by hand -- things of this sort, because people are dying every single day.
But beyond that, as we talked, some form of internationally sponsored arrangement of a transitional character to accelerate the recovery of the country on a more ambitious basis.
ZAKARIA: Zbigniew Brzezinski, always a pleasure to have you on. Thank you so much.
BRZEZINSKI: It's good to be with you, Fareed. You run a very good show which raises the right kind of issues.
ZAKARIA: Thank you, sir.
And we will be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PEGGY NOONAN: I think we live in a time of collapsed and collapsing institutions. I think people have less faith in the great institutions that in JFK's day and Eisenhower's day they had faith in -- journalism, government, the church.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: So, at the top of the program, I gave you my analysis of where President Obama went wrong in his first year. Now, I want to offer some other points of view, some from a group of people who have studied presidents and politics closely for many years. Let me put it this way, if I were Barack Obama, I would ask their opinions.
Joining me now are Robert Caro, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of a brilliant series of biographies on Lyndon Baines Johnson;
Peggy Noonan, "Wall Street Journal" columnist and writer, who authored many of Ronald Reagan's greatest speeches, not to mention five best-selling books;
Walter Isaacson, one-time chairman and CEO of this network, CNN, and the author of some great biographies, among them about Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger;
And Sam Tanenhaus, the "New York Times" editor and author of a terrific new book, "The Death of Conservatism," still surprisingly relevant.
Welcome to all of you.
Let me first begin with the poll numbers. One year into his presidency, what I'm struck by was looking at these historical polls, and he's roughly where Reagan was, a little bit ahead, actually, of Clinton, behind both Bushes -- 41 because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, 43 because of 9/11.
But I was struck by something else, which I want to ask you guys about. They're all lower than Eisenhower and Kennedy, who were in the high 60s, low 70s.
Is that about Watergate? Is that about the media? Is that about a different partisan climate? Or were Eisenhower and Kennedy a kind of exceptional bipartisan moment in American history?
WALTER ISAACSON, PRESIDENT AND CEO, ASPEN INSTITUTE: I do think the poisonous partisan atmosphere, the media environment -- everything helps to tear down a person's ratings.
And, you know, a year ago on this show, I must admit, Peggy and I were together. And Peggy was making the argument that he's biting off far too much, he can't do all these things. I said, "No, you've got to do all these things."
But I turned out to be wrong. They did overreach. They did bite off more than they could chew.
PEGGY NOONAN, "WALL STREET JOURNAL" COLUMNIST: I think we live in a time of collapsed and collapsing institutions. I think people have less faith in the great institutions that in JFK's day and Eisenhower's day they had faith in -- journalism, government, the church, you know. So, all of that has changed.
I think the Obama -- one of the Obama administration mistakes has been to not understand they were governing and taking power in a time of collapsed institutions, and a time when people were not trusting the government.
When you know the people are leery, and you try to do huge things, as we discussed some time back, that are also controversial things and don't have a lot of built-in support, you are looking for trouble. They looked for trouble; they got trouble.
ZAKARIA: But part of it is also, did they mislead the ideological moment?
SAM TANENHAUS, AUTHOR, "THE DEATH OF CONSERVATISM": The presidency has really been delegitimized. Look back over the last three presidents.
Bill Clinton was declared essentially illegitimate by some very powerful figures in the House, including Dick Armey, because he got 43 percent of the vote -- the same percentage Nixon had gotten in '68. George W. Bush was considered illegitimate by many on the left, because of the Florida recount.
Barack Obama's lineage and patrimony and native origin are being questioned. We do not regard the presidency the way we once did. And I think President Obama suffers for that.
One other point, I was looking at a very interesting piece George Packer wrote in the "New Yorker" right after the election. And he said, President Obama built a movement to get himself elected, but he didn't build one to govern. And that may have been a miscalculation, too. I think this was what...
NOONAN: Oy (ph).
TANENHAUS: ... we're (ph) talking about. There was not necessarily an ideological basis for...
ZAKARIA: And I think, in a way, he campaigned as a presidential figure, but he governed, particularly in the last six months, more as a prime minister, slicing and dicing the legislative process, except, you know, which was something that...
ISAACSON: For a whole year he's been acting almost like a prime minister. And he hasn't -- I mean, there are those of us who thought that he was going to be a great consensus-builder. And this would have restored the strength of the presidency. He was perfectly placed to do that.
And I think the pivot point came in august, when not only did you have the tea party rebellion out there, but you also had the decision made in the White House at the exact time to go for their own Democratic health care bill instead of continuing to try to fight for a consensus bill.
NOONAN: Can I say, I think one of the big headlines on Obama's first year is that -- and part of what we're referring to -- is he lost the center. He lost independents.
When he came in in 2008, Obama, he had the votes of the independents of America. They voted like Democrats. Only a year-and- a-half later, 2010, they are voting like Republicans in Massachusetts and New Jersey, in Virginia.
You cannot, when you are a modern president in this ferocious political environment, hold on to anything but the center, if you want to prosper. You know, that's where it is. That's where it's at politically. The suburbs are where it's at. And they are departing him.
I think it didn't start in August. I think it started earlier when the president decided that the meaning of his first year would be -- domestically -- would be health care. It was a mistake. And he also decided -- and guess what. I'm going to take my personal popularity and stature, and I am going to give it to the unpopular, ill-thought-of Democratic Congress. Shouldn't have done that.
ZAKARIA: I think that's -- tell that story about James Baker you were telling me in the green room.
NOONAN: James Baker had a wonderfully -- in the 1980s, working for President Reagan -- he had a wonderfully sharp sense of the stature of his president, Ronald Reagan, and is popularity. And he knew that he didn't want his president to be mucking around with -- these are not his words -- but those low-lifes, and unpopular and disliked small figures in the American Congress. ZAKARIA: By which he meant...
NOONAN: Reagan would be kept...
ZAKARIA: By which he meant the Republicans in the American Congress.
NOONAN: Let's just say he meant those in Congress. Reagan was going to be kept apart and, as a leader, heightened and just apart.
Obama and his people mucked up Obama with these congressional critters, whom nobody in America likes.
ZAKARIA: Except that Lyndon Johnson did this, and managed to do it well. Why? He was the one president who was able to be both president and prime minister.
ROBERT CARO, LBJ BIOGRAPHER: You know, I've been thinking all this week, as we talk, as we see how hard it is to get anything through Congress. An exactly analogous situation was Lyndon Johnson trying to pass the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, in 1957.
That was at least as hard as this. The Southerners controlled nine of the 11 most powerful committees in Congress. They said, this bill is not going through.
To watch Johnson get it through, vote by vote, against the filibuster, you know. And then they said, there were 96 senators. So, 34 and you could keep a filibuster going forever. And the saying was, you get up to 34 real fast in the Senate.
To watch Johnson strip those votes away from the South, one vote at a time, is just to watch -- you say, this is legislative genius.
ISAACSON: But didn't he do that by working with Republicans as well, just as Franklin Roosevelt's transformational policies were done in a more bipartisan way?
CARO: Yes. But at the same time, he had the -- the similarity to the Republicans today was the Southern Democrats. They never worked...
ZAKARIA: Well, both parties...
ISAACSON: Of which he was sort of one.
ZAKARIA: Well, both parties were...
CARO: He started out as one.
ZAKARIA: ... were more heterogeneous ideologically.
(CROSSTALK) TANENHAUS: You know, James MacGregor Burns, back in the 1950s was saying, there are actually four parties in America. There were presidential Republicans and Democrats, and liberals and conservatives -- and congressional ones. And you mixed and matched them.
One of the consequences of this very powerful and important conservative movement we've seen is that, in Congress, Republicans are ideologically unified.
This is -- it's funny. I was looking at something Burns wrote about the Goldwater election in 1964. And he said, the aim of these conservatives is -- they know they're going to lose this election -- it's to get rid of the liberals, what they used to call "me-too Republicans," what we now say Republicans in name only, and to purify ideologically the party. And they succeeded in that.
What they did was to leave themselves with a party that's fairly uniform in its views, so that even at the height of his popularity, Barack Obama couldn't get Republican votes for the stimulus package -- even then.
NOONAN: But that's exactly the opposite of what is happening now, Sam. Purism took a hit in New Jersey and Virginia, in Massachusetts. People were practical. They voted on issues. They voted for Republicans who are conservative economically, but are very non-snarling, who are not guys who you can look at and say, that is an ideologue.
I interviewed Scott Brown, the senator-elect, I guess, from Massachusetts, two days ago. The first thing he did was compliment Obama. Something new is going on. It is a certain -- it's a growing pragmatism among the tea party people, who voted in Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts for guys they were not 100 percent on the page with.
TANENHAUS: But what did Lindsey Graham say after the election on Tuesday? He said, if you're a conservative in a red state, don't think you don't have to be -- you don't have something to worry about. Which seems so odd. Here was an election...
ZAKARIA: Meaning what?
TANENHAUS: Meaning that there is, among the tea party group -- I'm not convinced that Peggy is right about the tea partiers themselves.
See, Scott Brown is an interesting case, because his victory speech sounded more or less like Obama's. He said, this is a victory for the independent majority, so he distanced himself from both parties.
But if you read the reconstruct the "Times" had of how the election was run, and if you look at the anxiety in Colorado, in Florida, as well, there seems to be a strain, a tension building within the Republican Party, its elites and its grassroots base.
NOONAN: That's been going on for a while. But New England just got -- Teddy Kennedy's seat just went to a Republican. Something's going on.
CARO: But you're talking only in terms of ideology. There's another level of government which is getting something done. Now, what we've seen here is a very practical thing -- a president dealing with Congress.
Now, we are in a democracy. We're talking -- we are governed by laws. Laws means Congress passing something.
Now, you take acts in the past that seemed impossible to get through. I'm sorry to keep mentioning Lyndon Johnson, but the Civil Rights Act, or the Medicare...
CARO: You say, what is legislative genius? He wants to get the first civil rights bill through. He needs a -- there are Southerners who will let it go to the next level, if they can get a guarantee that they can filibuster and hold it up on a future level.
Johnson needs 10 or 12 votes that he can deliver to the South. He says, what can I find? He finds the Western Democrats. What do they want? He says, I have to find something that 12 senators want enough to go along with the South on this.
And he finds Hells Canyon Dam on the Snake River, which divides Idaho or Oregon. He says, they've been fighting for this for 20 years for federal power. The South, if I can get Richard Russell, the head of the Southern Democrats, to agree to give them Hells Canyon, the South will let the bill move forward to the next level.
And he gets 12 votes.
If we had seen a stroke of genius like -- what else is legislative genius? Johnson is on the floor during this...
ISAACSON: Yes, but they can argue, Bob...
CARO: Let me just finish. There's a moment where he's going to lose. There's about to be a vote called. He's going to lose. He's standing next to the senator from New Mexico, Clinton Anderson, and he sees that Anderson, a liberal, has been doodling on a paragraph, and changing it around.
And he says, "That'll work." He says, "Introduce it, introduce it now."
And Anderson says, "I can't introduce it. I'm too liberal. They won't trust me."
He says, "Get a good Republican."
He looks around and he says, "Get Aiken." George Aiken of Vermont... ISAACSON: Yes.
NOONAN: Yes, Vermont.
CARO: ... who was working on it. He says -- Aiken introduces it, and the bill passes.
We don't see legislative genius like that anymore, I'm sorry.
ISAACSON: But, no, no, no, no, because that's a good point.
NOONAN: And experience.
ISAACSON: But one of the problems I think we've seen in the past few months is a little bit too much horse trading, too much, you know, cornhusker deals, and even my own state of Louisiana deals.
And I think the big difference between then and now, which you have sort of put your finger on, and the way history has gone...
ISAACSON: ... let's leave aside Massachusetts -- is the parties have become more ideological.
Back then, when you were writing about the civil rights bill, you had very conservative Southern Democrats and very liberal, you know, Kennedy Democrats. And now you've seen the ideological parting.
And this goes against what the founders of the country really hoped would happen. I mean, Benjamin Franklin was always saying, you know, compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies. We've got to find the common ground.
ZAKARIA: And, you know, to that end, then, the real legislative genius, I think, would be Obama having reached out to the Republicans on health care. And had he gone to John McCain and said, your signature campaign proposal, the elimination of the deduction for employers on health care -- if I were to accept that, John, would you support that?
ZAKARIA: And then you've transformed the debate. What he instead did was, he only sought approval within the congressional Democrats.
ZAKARIA: And then, to get the last 10 Democrats, you're making very sordid compromises. You're making exceptions to five states.
So, you're not giving them electricity.
ZAKARIA: You're doing things that are...
ISAACSON: You're not giving them a dam.
NOONAN: They were greedy for glory.
TANENHAUS: Well, I think...
ZAKARIA: I hate to break this up, but we're going to have to take a break. We will be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CARO: We have the yearning in this country -- and it was symbolized by and embodied in Obama's election -- a yearning for idealism more than ideology. And we're losing that now in the squabbling in Congress.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAKARIA: And we are back with our distinguished panel of experts, historians, scholars, Pulitzer Prize winners.
Let's talk about the ideological moment, because I think -- you know, you've written about it. You just talked about it.
So, I think, part of what happened here is, the end of the Cold War produced a new ideological landscape. And the people who mapped it out best were Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. And they understood, as you said, that at the end of the day, you govern from the center, that if you veer to far, if you veer like Newt Gingrich did, you get killed. If you veer to far to the left you get killed.
Are we still in that world? I mean, is...
ISAACSON: I think the nominations of McCain and Obama showed somewhat of a yearning for governing from the center and people who could reach across the aisle, because that's the way both had cast themselves in the primary. And then, I think there were a lot of factors that pulled that apart.
When Churchill's party lost the 1945 election, one of his colleagues said, "Well, Sir Winston, it's a blessing in disguise."
And he said, "Maybe so, but it's an incredibly good disguise."
In some ways this is a blessing in disguise, as incredible as the disguise is, because it says, no, you've got to emulate the Scott Browns and the independents who are able to reach to the center.
ZAKARIA: But except, Bob, you would argue that it is the giving up of great liberal ambitions and hopes.
CARO: Yes. And I think that we have a yearning in this country -- and it was symbolized by and embodied in Obama's election -- a yearning for idealism more than ideology. And we're losing that now in this squabbling in Congress, which is why I just keep returning to, gee, you've got to have someone who knows how to get things done.
He wants -- I think Obama has shown us that he wants his presidency to be truly transformational. I think most people would agree, in some ways this country needs to be transformed. No one would argue that 50 million shouldn't have...
ZAKARIA: But where's it going to go -- because we've got to get to this -- so, where is it going?
Ronald Reagan, same poll numbers, very bad, gloomy moment. People were -- Lou Cannon wrote a book that said, he's not even going to run for re-election he's doing so badly.
How did he turn it around? And what should Obama do?
NOONAN: Democrats are understandably desperate for parallels. How lovely that they can point to 1982 and a personally popular American president who had a very rough mid-term election, and a very rough political environment.
I don't buy it as a parallel. Many reasons. Here's just one.
One of Obama's biggest problems in his first year was that his preoccupations were in this direction, and the preoccupations of the American people were in this direction. They were not on the same page. The American people are thinking economy, foreign affairs, national security. He's doing health care, cap-and-trade -- stuff that these people thought was a little daffy to be concentrating on.
The reason -- one thing we haven't mentioned -- the Great Recession helped shape everything this year.
All right. Reagan, on the other hand, in '82 was on the same page as the American people. He had two preoccupations, the economy -- bad shape, inherited a recession -- and the Soviet Union. He focused on them like a laser beam.
Obama didn't focus on the great issues of his moment. It is the great problem with his first year.
ZAKARIA: You were covering national politics for TIME Magazine at the time of Reagan.
ISAACSON: With Reagan, yes, exactly.
Well, I think, to pick up on Bob's point, he does want to be a transformational president. But you can't transform the country on purely partisan lines, I don't think. Transformation has got to come the way LBJ did it, the way Franklin Roosevelt did it. Every president since Andrew Jackson was the only one to do it on partisan lines.
So, I do think the country is best governed and transformed from the center.
ZAKARIA: The future of conservatism, though. Because the point you make in your book is that, even if they -- and I'm going to extrapolate -- even though there is a political revival of conservatism, you don't quite see an intellectual revival. There are -- you know, the William Buckleys and Irving Kristols of the world have yielded to the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys, with the prominent and important exception of Peggy Noonan.
TANENHAUS: Well, you know, what's interesting, there were a number of books about a possible Republican and conservative revival published at the end of the Obama years. David Frum wrote one. Ross Douthat, who is now...
ZAKARIA: End of the Bush years.
NOONAN: Bush years.
TANENHAUS: Oh, I'm sorry, the end of the Bush years.
And Michael Gerson wrote one. And they all accepted that there was a major role for government to play. They were kind of accepting what seem to be the shift in the inevitable interrelation between government and society.
Those ideas have not been picked up at all, as far as I can tell, by the movement on the right.
Back in the heyday...
ZAKARIA: The tea party is not about embracing government.
NOONAN: Gee, I think what you're talking about is a conservative intellectual acquiescence to reality. That was true in the '60s and the '70s and '80s. Ronald Reagan didn't walk in and say, "Guess what. Government is over. I am ending it." He lived with the reality that he had.
Conservatism -- we are living in a time -- and this will not change -- when government is a player and a presence in American life. But if you approach that fact with conservative thoughts, you just might wind up governing a little better than if you approach it with other thoughts.
ISAACSON: It brings up a great lesson of Reagan, too, that you know all so well, and it's in your book, which is, even though he was very, very firm in his convictions -- anti-communist and for smaller government -- he's the one who most reached out to Gorbachev and said, look, we're going to do (ph) something (ph).
NOONAN: Ah, yes. ISAACSON: And then he reaches out to Tip O'Neill, and he helps transform things with Social Security.
ZAKARIA: And by the way, raises taxes five or six points (ph)...
NOONAN: This is working with reality.
ZAKARIA: ... in order to deal with the deficit.
NOONAN: Right. He was working with reality...
ISAACSON: So, if you're going to look for some...
NOONAN: ... which you must do.
ISAACSON: Exactly. It's working with reality. It's standing firm to your convictions, but knowing where to find the common ground, whether it's at Reykjavik with Gorbachev, or on the tax and the Social Security compromises that he and Tip O'Neill could do.
That's what we're missing today.
ZAKARIA: We're going to have to take a break. We will be right back.
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CARO: On the health care bill in particular, I think, frankly, in political terms, if he backs away from that, he will be lost, because that is what people see in him.
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ZAKARIA: Bob, so, the final word. What should Obama do, from your perspective? Do you want -- you still want him to be transformational. So, what should he do?
CARO: I think that on the health care bill in particular, he should go back and say, we need a health care bill. Whether he revisits and starts over again, that ideal should not be lost.
I think, frankly, in political terms, if he backs away from that, he will be lost, because that is what people see in him. What is his presidency going to be?
You know, we haven't even talked -- you were talking about Reagan and Gorbachev -- he has had such immense decisions. He came in in an economic crisis, a huge economic crisis, came in with a terrorist problem, a stretched military, a budget that was already -- he had immense problems. And you say, where does he stand at the end of the first year? I think we're going to look back at this point in three years and say -- I hope we say -- that, gee, he's risen up from this low point right here.
ZAKARIA: We will not wait three years. We will reconvene this panel sooner than that. Thank you all very much. And we will be right back.
ZAKARIA: And now, for our "What in the World?" segment.
What got my attention this week was this...
... making way for this.
The first one, of course, "Avatar," the blockbuster James Cameron movie, that is expected to become the world's top grossing film of all time. I'm seeing it this weekend with my family.
"Avatar" has already made more money in China than any other film in history, according to its distributor, 20th Century Fox.
But after just three weeks in theaters, China has decided to pull all but 2D copies of "Avatar" off, leaving only a few 3D and IMAX copies. Now, only one in 10 theaters in China is able to show these souped-up versions of the film.
Chinese media says, "Avatar" is being pushed aside for a film the Beijing government has a particular interest in -- its own version of a big-budget blockbuster, this bio pic about the ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius. The film, starring action hero Chow Yun-Fat, was partially paid for by the Chinese government.
Beijing denies it has pulled "Avatar" to make way for its own movie. The state administration for radio, film and television says it was a simple matter of economics; the 2D version of the film wasn't making money.
Despite China's denials, nobody disputes that China does restrict foreign films from entering its domestic market. Only 20 foreign films are allowed to be shown in China each year.
Western business leaders do report that the Chinese government now freely admits it wants to develop local champions, and will not give Western companies unfettered access to the Chinese market.
In the past, China needed the United States, and the West in general, as a source of capital, as a market for its exports, as a political ally, as a provider of technology and know-how. But it's possible that some Chinese leaders have decided they don't need us anymore. The relationship has changed. Now, any nation is free to act as it wishes, but I would suggest that maybe China's leaders might want to take a look at that new Confucius film they paid for. One of the great Chinese sage's sayings was a version of the Golden Rule. He said in his Analects, "Never impose on others what you do not want done to yourself."
And if the Chinese turn away from the West and become insular and nationalistic, it might provoke a similar reaction here. And that won't be good for the world or for China.
We will be right back.
ZAKARIA: Now, for our "Question of the Week."
Last Sunday I asked, once the immediate crisis has passed, do you think the United States should spend large amounts of money and resources to rebuild Haiti? How much can or should the U.S. do to rebuild a country with problems as deep as Haiti's?
Most of our viewers said, yes, the U.S. must help. And almost all added, if America doesn't take the lead, who will?
Many, of course, cited humanitarian concerns, but others brought up security.
Andrea Simpson of Pasadena, California, said, given Haiti's poverty and chaos, "if we don't help, dictators and even jihadists may see an opportunity to move closer to our shores."
Michael Kelly of Holmdel, New Jersey, was one of the dissenters, saying simply, "What are we going to do, borrow more money from China to rebuild Haiti?"
Now, for this week, I want to know your thoughts about President Obama and the so-called "Massachusetts message," the election of Republican Senator Scott Brown. There seems little doubt that this was indeed a message from voters.
My question is, how should Obama respond? Should he move closer to the left, his core constituency, or toward his nemesis, the right? And, of course, there's the center, the place from which Bill Clinton governed successfully. So, should President Obama move left, right or center?
Let me know your thoughts.
A reminder, I love reading your e-mails, but please include your name and location when you send them.
As always, I'd like to recommend a book. It's called "The Death of Conservatism," by Sam Tanenhaus, who you recall was on the program today.
The Tanenhaus premise is compelling and not so easy to refute. Today's conservative movement, he says, is dying, because it is harshly ideological, very different from the grounded philosophical movement of the past from which there were great thinkers, like William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol. Those were the people who personified the right.
Today, Rush Limbaugh speaks for the movement.
Tanenhaus argues that right now, conservatism serves as a kind of movement of obstruction, recrimination, that does not offer a thought- out set of ideas -- nothing voters will hold onto in the long run.
So, despite the Massachusetts message, I think it's an interesting book to read.
Before we go, I want you to know we have relaunched our foreign affairs quiz. Test your knowledge by taking the Fareed Challenge. It's even more fun than before. You can find it on our Web page, cnn.com/gps.
Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.