GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Our cover story today is about legacy. Every second-term president starts to think about it, and it's no different with President Obama. And our story begins back in the summer of 2011. H.W. Brands, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was invited to dinner at the White House.
H.W. BRANDS: We arrived a little bit before the president did, and we had a glass of wine in one of the reception rooms. And then he came in and introduced himself around, then we fairly shortly went into the dining room. He gave some opening remarks. They were relatively brief. It was really a matter of thank you all for coming.
RAZ: And we're talking about, like, 15 people, right? No more than that in the room.
BRANDS: Total at the table, the chief of staff was there and a couple of other White House staff, but - and so, yes, it was a small group. And it was small enough that it was quite easy to maintain a single conversation around the table.
RAZ: The conversation that night at the White House was almost entirely about the previous men who lived there because Brands and his fellow dinner guests are all presidential historians: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, Michael Beschloss and others. And they were invited by President Obama to offer some historical perspective on the successes and failures of his predecessors.
BRANDS: It was clear from the tenor of the conversation then that President Obama and his chief of staff were looking at the American presidency and focusing on what they considered the transformative presidents: Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan. And I thought about this, and I suggested that Theodore Roosevelt might be a better model. Because if you look at Lincoln...
RAZ: And Brands' colleagues agreed. Lincoln and FDR were transformative presidents, they said, but a lot of that had to do with the great moments of crisis they faced: the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II. And while things were bad in 2011, they weren't Civil War bad.
BRANDS: The difference between Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt on the one hand and Theodore Roosevelt on the other hand was that Roosevelt was able to push the country and the government in a progressive direction, but at the same time to preside over seven and a half years of peace and prosperity. So for the American people, if not necessarily for the historical reputation of a president, Theodore Roosevelt might be the better model.
RAZ: Now that dinner was actually the last of three dinners the president held during each of his first three years in office, each one of them attended by the same group of historians. And recently, New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor wrote a detailed article about them and why they were so unusual.
JODI KANTOR: Because they weren't sort of discussions of history for history's sake. They weren't idle conversations. The president wanted their help with strategy. He wanted to learn from predecessors' mistakes and triumphs. And it was almost - there was a séance quality to it. It was almost like he was trying to summon up his predecessors and all they knew, maybe in part to compensate for what initially was not a lot of Washington experience on Obama's part.
RAZ: So the first dinner, she says...
KANTOR: The first year, it was very much about a first-term agenda. And the second year, it was very much about congressional opposition and the Tea Party.
RAZ: But the third year, when Teddy Roosevelt came up, that was the summer of 2011, the summer when the U.S. almost defaulted on its loans, the summer of the debt ceiling debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOW)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, the debt ceiling. It's starting to sound like a broken record, right? You know, the deadline is looming for raising the federal debt ceiling.
KANTOR: The debt ceiling crisis did not go well for Obama by any account.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOW)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If a deal isn't reached soon, the U.S. will run out of money to pay its bills on August 2nd.
KANTOR: It represented such a low point in the Obama presidency because this guy who soared to power by saying that there was no red or blue America, there was only the United States of America...
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOW)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Because the day they say we will not raise the debt ceiling, right, the rest of the world flees from America, I believe.
KANTOR: He was going to unify the country. He was going to make Washington work.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: The president and I do not agree on his view that government needs more revenues through higher taxes on job creators.
KANTOR: He couldn't even produce a commonsense solution to a crisis that most people thought had to be fixed immediately.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've been left at the altar now a couple of times. And I think that, you know, one of the questions that the Republican Party is going to have to ask itself is, can they say yes to anything? Can they say yes to anything?
KANTOR: It was (unintelligible) of the president's first term.
RAZ: And it was around that time when those historians told the president to think less Lincoln and FDR and more Teddy Roosevelt.
KANTOR: And the reason why is that Roosevelt was able to pass a lot of progressive legislation, even though he was dealing with a very hostile Congress, Teddy Roosevelt, even though he was a Republican, was for universal health care. He was a great environmentalist. And he also had a quality that the historians, frankly, kind of wish that the president had.
The historians were pretty honest with the president in these dinners - diplomatic but honest. And what they told him is that he was not doing a good enough job forging a day-to-day relationship with the American people.
OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)
RAZ: And so Jodi Kantor says the president took that advice to heart. And a few months later, he decided to lay out his vision for a second term in Osawatomie, Kansas.
OBAMA: We've got the mayor of Osawatomie. Phil Dudley is here.
RAZ: And why Osawatomie? Here's a story and H.W. Brands again.
BRANDS: Theodore Roosevelt had given a widely noted speech there just about 100 years before in which he had laid out the basis, the philosophical basis, for an activist national government. So Obama quotes Theodore Roosevelt.
OBAMA: Our country, he said, means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy.
BRANDS: The triumph of a real democracy, of an economic system...
OBAMA: ...of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.
BRANDS: Theodore Roosevelt: The fundamental rule of our national life - the rule which underlies all others - is that on the whole and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.
OBAMA: We shall go up or down together. And I believe America...
RAZ: He mentions the word fairness what?
BRANDS: I counted 15 times, including one unfairness. And the idea of a square deal - because Roosevelt, though a Republican and though the Republican Party had leaned strongly toward business - Roosevelt is something of a maverick Republican. He was a progressive Republican, and he believed that everybody should get what he called a square deal, what President Obama calls a fair deal from the American government.
RAZ: You never got to sit in a room with Franklin or Teddy Roosevelt. You've written about them and have concluded that they were transformative men and presidents. Is there a part of you that said in that room with President Obama and that reflects back on it and thinks that maybe he has the capacity to be that?
BRANDS: I think President Obama has the capacity internally to be a transformative president. The question is whether he will have the opportunity in the terms of context of American history because, as I suggested, the transformative presidents presided over moments of great crisis. In Lincoln's day and Franklin Roosevelt's day, the status quo was so clearly broken that almost everybody acknowledged, Mr. President, you've got to do something about it.
President Obama's problem is that his problem isn't big enough to give him the opportunity really to redirect the status quo. Now I don't think we're quite there yet. Frankly, I hope we don't get there because if we do, it means that the country will be far deeper into the ditch than it is at the moment.
RAZ: President Obama may now be looking to channel his Teddy Roosevelt once again as he prepares to enter into a series of very difficult talks over the so-called fiscal cliff.
NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with me now for more. And, Mara, we're talking about legacy here. And presumably, the president is looking at these talks as a chance to sort of rewrite history, especially after the debacle of those debt ceiling talks in 2011.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, there's no doubt about that. He's going to go about these negotiations in a completely different way. He's going to insist, by the way, that the debt ceiling be part of a deal, and the debt ceiling will be reached again sometime at the end of January. So, yes, he certainly has learned a lot of lessons. He's starting out with some clear bottom lines.
He's not making concessions up front the way he did with the stimulus package. He puts some tax cuts on the table right away, thinking that was a gesture of goodwill and he still didn't get any Republican votes. So, yes, I think the president is getting a do-over. And also, he's in a stronger position now. There's a reason why we all said - everybody said - no progress will be made on a grand bargain until after the election because nobody knew who was going to have the upper hand. Now the president's hand is a little bit strengthened, and the Republicans know that, and that's why right out of the gate they were talking about, OK, we'll have some revenues.
RAZ: So what's happening right now behind closed doors on Capitol Hill and at the White House? Are there bipartisan teams from different staffs trying to lay the groundwork for the beginnings of an agreement?
LIASSON: Yes. That's what they're doing. The president is obviously out of the country, and they're trying to figure out what kind of savings they could get from entitlements, what kind of combination of tax income rate hikes and revenue hikes, that is, capping deductions. The problem with that is that that's where the Republicans would like to get revenue.
Let's just cap deductions for rich people, they say. The president says you can't get enough by doing that, unless you cap deductions for the middle class too. So that's what the staffs are working on right now. And they know what every single thing costs.
RAZ: Mara, just a little over a year ago in Osawatomie in Kansas, the president talked in sweeping terms about, you know, more environmental regulation, tighter financial regulation, higher tax rates for the wealthy. Given that the House is still under GOP control, could we expect any movement in those areas?
LIASSON: I think we can. This is - the players are the same, but the script has changed. Speaker Boehner is looking to his legacy. President Obama is not going to be campaigning again for re-election. He's looking for his legacy. People really want this to happen. The can has been kicked down the road over and over again, and I absolutely think something can be different this time.
And as a matter of fact, that is the consensus. That's why the markets are happy. And I think it would be a very rude shock if they fail to reach agreement again.
RAZ: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. We also heard from H.W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor whose book "The Obamas" is just out in paperback.
All those talks over the fiscal cliff, by the way, lawmakers have until December 31st to come up with a deal. If nothing happens, the federal budget will be cut by $700 billion, almost guaranteeing a return to recession. And there's a good chance, like in the summer of 2011, that a deal may happen with just seconds to go before the deadline.
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