Columnists Discuss Obama Meetings

Correction Jan. 16, 2009

In the introduction to this interview, we referred to "President Obama" instead of President-elect Obama.

President-elect Barack Obama met separately this week with conservative and liberal columnists. David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post attended the meetings. Dionne says the meeting was like a seminar on how to be a calm president in the midst of a whole series of crises. Brooks says conservatives at the dinner were impressed with Obama.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And for more now on the transition from the Bush to the Obama White House, we're joined by our regular political watchers, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome to both of you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

NORRIS: Now, we need to say that you are both in that rare class of Washington scribes right now. You both had a face-to-face meeting with the president. He met first with conservative writers and then with more liberal-leaning writers. I know it was an off-the-record session, so you're not supposed to talk about what happened inside the room, but I'm just curious about your sense of Obama during this moment. E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, we compared notes and everything he said to the conservatives, he said exactly the opposite to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DIONNE: Now, in fact, I mean, the striking thing about him is that you - he was an extremely popular professor when he taught at the University of Chicago Law School, and you know, our session was at one of those seminar tables. We didn't have to serve him food, and it was like a seminar in a course on how to be a calm president in the middle of a whole series of crises, and he was very...

NORRIS: So, he was doing most of the talking?

DIONNE: Yeah. And it was mostly a Q&A - in our case, it was mostly Q&A. And he was very direct, he was good humored, and when you thought about it, he was extremely calm, given the problems he was describing, both here and abroad.

NORRIS: David, you did share meal with him in your meeting with the president. Your sense of him?

BROOKS: Well, he's an incredibly impressive man. I mean, with the conservatives, he had a very sophisticated meal, a very complicated policy discussion. I'm sure with liberals he used a much smaller sentences, more simple words. But I think he's competent at both levels. And no, I think what comes across probably in our private conversations, and in the public conversations he's had this week, is an intense empiricism, a pragmatism. And I think, you know, he's been emphasizing this publicly and privately, the evidence-based idea, governing on the evidence, not having a grand ideological vision where he wants to go, just whatever works to get us out this problem. And then the second thing, which, I guess, is really reassuring for a lot of us, is we're going to be spending a lot of money in the next couple of years, and we understand that, but he's clearly demonstrated this week that he's committed to tackling the big entitlement projects - Medicare, Social Security - that are the real fiscal disaster waiting to happen. So, it's not only short-term spending, but there's long-term fiscal balance, that's very much in his mind, which was not in his mind, or at least not talked about as much, during the campaign.

NORRIS: David, I hear you said that the conservatives were reassured by the incoming president?

BROOKS: I think it's fair to say that in the group - not to say what he said at the dinner, but the conservatives at the dinner were deeply impressed with the man and came away thinking, A, it was impressive that he would meet with us, and B, we had a very sophisticated policy discussion of the sort you could not have had with the current president.

NORRIS: I want to look beyond Inauguration Day, if we could, and look at the agenda that awaits the president. E.J., you wrote this week about the future president's ideology. We spent years listening to him talk as Obama, the candidate. What do we expect from Obama, the president?

DIONNE: Well, you know, I think, it's very hard to pin him down ideologically. I think the - that what he is, is someone whose leanings are broadly progressive, center left. But as David said, he is a pragmatist and an empiricist, and I think somewhere in the zone between broadly progressive objectives and a real desire to do what works is what we're going to see. I think one striking example of that was just this week in his own stimulus plan, where he had a business tax cut, this tax credit to create - supposedly to create jobs. It didn't really work. It didn't have much of an economic kick, and empiricism led him to drop his own campaign promise out of the economic package, and I think that kind of fact-based approach is going to be very much what his presidency is about.

NORRIS: And he had a victory out of that, something they are saying was similar to an 80-yard pass completion.

DIONNE: Right, and I think there's a very good chance that the stimulus will go through with quite a few Republican votes. And the group where I think we need to pay attention to, are not, you know, moderate Republicans, Republicans from states Barack Obama carried. I think he's going to get more support, even if they're fairly conservative, from those than we might expect.

NORRIS: Before we turn to the outgoing president, I just want to ask you a quick question about the Republicans. Barack Obama spent a lot of time on the campaign trail, talking about leading America past the politics of division. What happens now that that high-minded rhetoric meets the reality of governing from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

BROOKS: So far, he's lived up to it, and that's only - not only in conversation with conservative columnists, but I've had Republican senators say they've had more conversations with Barack Obama in the past couple weeks than they did with George Bush in a couple years. So, so far, he has lived up to it. There's a significant tax cut in that stimulus package, which Republicans like. So far, the change in tone - and it's early - the change in tone has been remarkable.

NORRIS: Now, we don't have much time left, but I'm curious to hear both of you talk a little bit about what struck you about the endnotes of the Bush presidency.

DIONNE: I was struck in his speech by how much he wanted to relive probably the best moment of his presidency, which were the couple of months after September 11th. It was a time when he was very popular. It was a time when he really - partisanship really was pushed aside for a few months. I was also struck that he wants us to remember that we weren't attacked after September 11th, and I think that's going to be a large claim, and he had some warnings there. It was a warning, if you get rid of some of these policies I had that you don't like for civil-liberties reasons, watch out. He didn't say that directly, but I think that was the subtext.

NORRIS: David?

BROOKS: There was a lot of self-knowledge. I mean, on this point, he said, you know, a lot of people have moved on from 9/11; I never moved on. And that is true. When you go in to interview him or people around him, they are still very much in the 9/11 mentality. There's no sense that we overreacted or anything like that. They still think many more people would have died if they hadn't taken the actions they took. It's very much like going back - stepping away from the mainstream American culture and going back to a 2001 world, where I think he still lives and feels he needs to live.

NORRIS: We've only got - very, very briefly, does he still, in these last days, have a chance to put a certain punctuation on his presidency?

BROOKS: Well, he's handled the transition well, but I don't think he's going to change anybody's mind about him. He's changed the tone in Washington, but by leaving (unintelligible).

NORRIS: David, E.J., thank you very much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution.

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