Can Next President Deliver on Promises of 'Change'? Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama are both promising the voters change. But will the new president be able to deliver in a partisan, gridlocked Washington where the parties can regularly checkmate one another?
NPR logo

Can Next President Deliver on Promises of 'Change'?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91415100/91415070" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Can Next President Deliver on Promises of 'Change'?

Can Next President Deliver on Promises of 'Change'?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91415100/91415070" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Whatever the candidates' connections to the culture of Washington, both say that culture needs to change.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): Direction of this country is going to change dramatically. But the choice is between the right change and the wrong change.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): And this election isn't just about change a party in Washington, but also about the need to change Washington.

Sen. McCAIN: That's not change we can believe in.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. OBAMA: That's what change is.

Sen. McCAIN: And that, my friends, is the kind of change we need.

Sen. OBAMA: That's the change we need in America.

INSKEEP: It's fair to assume that the word change must have scored very highly in public opinion polls before these gentlemen began using it. One question is whether the winner will take charge of a political system that shakes off efforts to change it, though.

We're going to put that question to the journalists John Harwood and Gerald Seib. They try to explain Washington in the new book, "Pennsylvania Avenue," and they're in our studios. Welcome to you both.

Mr. JOHN HARWOOD (Journalist; Co-Author, "Pennsylvania Avenue"): Thank you.

Mr. GERALD SEIB (Journalist; Co-Author, "Pennsylvania Avenue"): Thanks for having us.

INSKEEP: John Harwood, let's start with you. What needs changing?

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, I think results is what needs changing. We've seen a political system that has gotten bogged down on all but the easiest things to do. The number one mandate for change is to somehow to find a way for the new Congress and the new president to get some things done.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask, though, Gerald Seib: Now and again, you do hear someone say, hey, if nothing is changing in Washington, if everything is blocked in Washington, good. The less they get away with, the better.

Mr. SEIB: Yeah, and honestly, that's been a refrain of the business community and the financial communities often in the last 20 years, which is if they're not doing anything, they're not doing any harm. I think that's true to a point. But one of the things we chronicle in the book is the frustration that even people who might otherwise feel that way are now showing.

For example, health care - it's a big problem for workers. It's a big problem for business, which is paying way more than it wants to cover the workers who do have insurance. What happened in the last year, you had a union leader, Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union, and Lee Scott, the CEO of Wal-Mart - now the country's biggest employer - get together outside the system where these things are supposed to be solved to come up with some ideas on their own about how there might be a joint effort to do something about health costs in America. And then they stood up together - sort of this odd couple, this lions-and-lamb coalition - and threw on the table some ideas and said to the political system here, can you start with this and do something? Of course, nothing's happened.

Mr. HARWOOD: And Steve, if you look at the polls showing that 80 percent of the people in the country think we're headed in the wrong direction, that tells you that the appetite for something different is upon us. And the promising thing for Americans in this election, really, is that John McCain has a different leadership style from George W. Bush, and Barack Obama - though his record isn't as long - certainly has the inclination and, in his person, as a biracial candidate, is somebody who literally spans the racial divide in the country and says that he intends to govern in a different way, move past what we've seen in the '90s and in the Bush era and try to figure out a way to work with the other party.

INSKEEP: What makes you think that someone is going to be able to pull people together on health care and social security?

Mr. SEIB: Well, here's a theory that somebody we talked to in the book, Ken Mehlman, who used to be chairman of the Republican National Party, said, look. You know, I think it's only the big problems that ultimately force the country to reach consensus.

You know, when there was a world war to be won, when there was a Cold War to be fought, when there was a civil rights revolution to be managed, the country came together on those issues. And those were big issues, and that's what pulled the country together. And maybe the era that's about to dawn is one in which the issues are so big - entitlement reform, fighting a war on terrorism, dealing with radical Islam - that they will force the country to come together even when smaller issues can't.

INSKEEP: Although aren't these the kind of issues, though, that don't lend themselves to an immediate crisis? Social Security isn't like World War II. You're not going to be defeated next year. You can always wait another year, or so it feels.

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, sooner or later, the long-term crisis is short-term, and the years are ticking off the clock. When people say Social Security's going to run out of money in X year in the future, we're getting closer and closer. I think there's a greater appreciation of that, not just on Social Security, but on Medicare, and there's also greater appreciation of the fact that economically, we're in a weakened state. People have got to try to figure out some way of moving us forward, both for the immediate term and for the long term.

INSKEEP: One other thing, gentlemen, if you can think of a time when there was divided government, when there wasn't an immediate, immediate crisis, when people were able to work together on huge issues facing the country.

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, divided government, no question, lends itself, when the mood is right, for deals: Ronald Reagan compromising with the Democratic congress on tax reform, for example. John McCain, almost certainly if he's elected, will face divided government. And if he wants to get anything done, he would have to deal with a Democratic Congress because all the signs indicate they're likely to keep their majorities.

More interesting, a tricky question for Barack Obama: If he wins the election, he will also likely have a Democratic congress. The wind is at the Democrats' back right now. Will he nevertheless be in a mood to deal with the other side? It's going to be a political challenge facing him.

Mr. SEIB: I'll give you another example: Dwight Eisenhower in the '50s -Republican, had to deal with a lot of Democrats, got some things done. Did an interstate highway system, dealt with what he called the military industrial complex, started to deal with the civil-rights problem. It was finished up later by Kennedy and Johnson, obviously. But I think you can look at Dwight Eisenhower and see a figure who sort of stood in the middle, straddled the two parties and got some things done and started to create solutions for other problems.

INSKEEP: John Harwood and Gerald Seib are authors of "Pennsylvania Avenue." Thank you.

Mr. HARWOOD: Thanks for having us.

Mr. SEIB: Thanks.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.