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Jonathan Alter sees trouble with the Obama campaign, and downplays Obama’s crazy preacher

Thursday, May 17, 2012
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HH: Time for affirmative action for Chicago Cubs fans. I’m joined by Jonathan Alter. He’s a columnist, of course, for Bloomberg View. He is the author of two really fine books, including Defining Moment, which is about FDR, and The Promise, about President Obama. Jonathan, welcome back, good to have you.

JA: Hey, thanks a lot, Hugh, glad to be here, thanks for the kind words.

HH: I want to start by just getting a sense. I opened up a Pinterest board, and I said best of the left, and I listed you and E.J, and a couple of other lefties, and I’m thinking to myself, has panic set in? So I wanted to check in. Are you worried about these numbers that are coming out of CBS/New York Times/Washington Post, especially the Gallup and the Rasmussen numbers?

JA: Actually, I am. I think it’s going to be a very close election. I think anybody who tells you definitively that one or the other candidate is going to be elected president is blowing smoke. Nobody knows. There are too many variables. There are too many things that could happen between now and the election. It seems to me that, you know, Democrats on the coasts have a little bit of a cocky attitude about this, which is silly, because Romney could very easily be the next president.

HH: I’m afraid of one thing, Jonathan, and one thing only, and that is if they send Joe Biden to State, and they make a big trade like Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuhn, and Secretary of State Clinton becomes the vice president. Any prospect of that, in your view?

JA: Well you know, I wrote a column about that, about a year ago, before the New York Times’ Bill Keller wrote about it. And I thought it was possible. I continue to think that it’s conceivable that it would happen. They have essentially ruled it out, and that makes me think that it’s highly unlikely, but you really can never say never in politics. And if they had slam dunk polling data telling them that that would be the only way they could win the election, they would do it. But I think what they would argue is that it would make the president look desperate, it would undermine his image of strength, and it would be a bad thing politically, not to mention a very nice thing to do to Joe Biden.

HH: Well, he loves being the secretary of state stuff anyway, so I’m not sure it would be harsh on him.

JA: Yeah, that’s the way I feel, too. I don’t think it would be, either. I mean…but you know, they think it would look desperate. So it’s something that they will, you know, all but rule out. For the record, I’m sure they will rule it out. But you have to remember that in both parties, politicians will turn on a dime if it’s in their interest. So around Labor Day, if Obama is behind, and if the polling shows that Hillary would bring back a lot of women who he had lost with the gender gap narrowing, he’ll do what it takes. I think we’re seeing that about this president. It’s true of Mitt Romney, too. He’ll do what it takes to be president.

HH: That’s what I…I can only imagine the crowd that would show up if Hillary and Bill Clinton went to my hometown of Warren, Ohio, and up into the Youngstown area and Cleveland area. And they’re not going to win Ohio right now. They’re going to lose Ohio, and I know that from just being there.

JA: I’m not sure you’re right at all about this. I mean, I think that Portman on the ticket would help Romney win Ohio, but I’m just very leery not just of predictions about the outcome of the whole election, but state by state battleground state predictions. You know, one thing that you might not be factoring into this is that the numbers on the auto bailouts are not good for Romney. The people in Michigan and Northern Ohio, whose livelihood depends on the auto industry, they recognize the facts on this, and the facts are that you know, Romney’s trying to make it sound like Obama followed him with his bankruptcy proposal. But Romney’s bankruptcy proposal had no government involvement. He expected that private investors would come in to reorganize the auto industry. And the problem with that, as has been pointed out repeatedly, is that there were no private investors who were interested at the time. So it was either the government or liquidation. And liquidation would have been…

HH: Well, I …we’ll agree to disagree. I go in and out of Ohio a lot…

JA: It’s not…oh, sorry. Go ahead.

HH: I go in and out of GM land quite a lot, and the GM workers know the score. And it’s just a question of this president not being competent in their view, and culturally just not in sync with them, and I think the gay marriage, that’s what I wanted to get to, the gay marriage decision of the president, I’m sure you approve of it, but it simply did not play well in some of the traditional, very ethnic Catholic constituencies, Jonathan Alter.

JA: I think that’s right. I think that’s right, and that’s why I think it was kind of stunning to me. The poll that showed that 67% thought that the president did this for political reasons…

HH: Yup.

JA: This was a loser for him, politically. I think it was a brave move, it showed that even though he was, you know, got some help from Joe Biden on it, both of them were brave. This is an issue that’s in transition. There are a lot of people who feel very strongly on the other side, and it would have been much easier for them to just take a powder on it until after the election.

HH: Let me close by asking you about the new Klein book. I know you’re not a fan, but I heard some of the tapes of the interview he did with Jeremiah Wright, and they’re explosive. They are genuinely explosive. You’re a biographer of the president. How much of this is bitterness, and how much of this, do you think, is just Wright telling the story the way that it happened?

JA: Well you know, I haven’t heard those tapes, so I need to listen to them. I mean, I think he’s a bitter man. To my mind, after four years, we have an awful lot to judge Barack Obama on. One can come to different conclusions about him, but the idea that he’s cut from the same cloth as Jeremiah Wright is a joke. I mean, we know that he’s not. And so to my mind, that’s a side show. A lot of the rest of what Ed Klein reports just seems like garbage to me. You know, this idea that Bill Clinton wanted Hillary to challenge Obama, that’s just not true.

HH: I’m just referring to what I can confirm, because I heard the tape playing on Sean’s show today, and Jeremiah Wright goes on at length about a number of things, you know, calling David Axelrod the mother hen, and just the sort of details which have the feel of authenticity. And I think it’s going to be a big story.

JA: Well, calling him the mother hen…of course, he hates Axelrod, because Axelrod was one of the people counseling Obama to throw him under the bus. But you know, just because some bitter figure from the past, you know, comes forward to say these kinds of things, it just doesn’t feel meaningful to me. This is an important election with really important issues. And it’s going to be determined by the economy and who people feel can manage the economy, and some deep questions about the role of government. I think the Ryan plan, which Romney has embraced, calls for $800 billion in cuts to Medicaid. So the question of how we’re going to treat the poor in terms of health care, these are the issues that should be focused on, not what Mitt Romney did at Cranbrook Academy, or what Obama’s crazy preacher’s saying this week. These are side shows, and I think voters are smart enough to focus on the main issues.

HH: We certainly agree on what’s going to be the decisive issue – the economy and other deep issues. Jonathan Alter from Bloomberg View, thank you so much, always a pleasure. Jonathan’s books are The Promise: President Obama, Year One, and of course, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.

End of interview.

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