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Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol on the ushering in of President Barack Obama

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

HH: We begin this hour with New York Times columnist and editor of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, one of the pod people who went out and became Obamapods last week. I hope he’s escaped the influence of the president now. Bill Kristol, welcome, it’s good to have you.

BK: Thanks, Hugh, yeah, no, I’ve recovered from swooning and all the rapture. And actually, I left the country yesterday. I’m here in Canada, so much the opposite of swooning that I left town.

HH: You know, that’s pretty extreme. You don’t really have to leave the country. I think it’s okay.

BK: You think it’s okay I can come back? Okay, I’ll come back.

HH: Come back. Bill Kristol, let’s start generally speaking. What was your reaction to yesterday’s speech?

BK: I thought it was pretty good. I don’t think it was the greatest inaugural ever given, but I think people are overanalyzing that, that I very much agree with what you said, I think, in a post on your website, I was reading your piece. I mean, I think on the core issue that matters most, is he going to be serious about taking on our enemies, is he going to be apologetic about America, or does he view himself as fulfilling the American dream rather than somehow challenging or modifying the American dream, I think he’s in the right place. I thought the ending was very powerful about George Washington, I thought the statement that we will not apologize for our way of life was the right thing to say, and an important thing for him to say given that, you know, half his supporters want him to apologize for our way of life. The way I put it in a lunch up here in Calgary is he will be a more liberal president than I would like on many issues, and I worry about some of the foreign policy stuff, but he will be an American president. He will not be a European president of the United States of America.

HH: Very reassuring, because I’ve come to the same conclusion based upon what he said yesterday, and many of his appointments. But of course, policy is a different matter. I spoke to a Harvard Business School group this morning, Bill, and told them he’s staffing up, it’s…a lawyers brigade is arriving in D.C. And whether it’s Cass Sunstein or the rest of them, with the exception of Summers and Geitner, these are lawyers. And lawyers tend to regulate and write laws. And I am afraid on the domestic side that we’re going to find ourselves with the kind of regulatory morass that we saw in the second half of the 70s. What’s your thought on his staffing thus far?

BK: Yeah, I agree. I was struck when I met him last week also how much of a law professor he is, in both the good and bad sense. In the good sense, he’s thoughtful, he understands an argument critical of him, he takes it seriously, and then he’ll explain why he doesn’t come out quite where you do, the way a good law professor would in class. The bad news is that I agree, there’s a sort of lawyer’s way of thinking about the world, which is useful and appropriate in a lot of aspects, a lot of areas, but can be misleading in some areas. And I worry about domestic policy a bit, well, more than a bit. I mean, I think it will be a regulatory and big government administration. I worry a little more about…foreign policy, I think he’s come around a lot in the last two or three months. He takes seriously his responsibilities as commander in chief. I still worry that law professor mindset can lead you to one of sort of working everything out and find the perfect, you know, balancing act, as opposed to understanding that there are some issues where you just have to sort of say go, no go, you know, and make a tough judgment call, and not think you can sort of work everything out or arrive at some proper balancing of all interests.

HH: You know, in that regard, I’ve been telling people a lot, I’ve been thinking about Obama because of my 15 years of teaching Con law to very good law students, but not University of Chicago law students. You need to persuade law students, and so you put an effort in, and you believe that everyone can be persuaded on everything. I think you were just alluding to this. The world is full of unpersuadable types who need to be told we will defeat you as he did. But domestically, I think he can persuade every Republican. I think he took you guys to dinner, because he thinks he can persuade you.

BK: I think he thinks that. I mean, no, that could be. Look, fine, let him try. I think people like me and like you have developed our views over a long period of time, and I don’t think we’re suddenly going to be flipped around 180 degrees. But some of these domestic issues obviously are less ideological than others. Some of them really are practical questions of you know, how do you help the banking system get back on its feet. And while if you’re educated on a certain kind of economics as opposed to another kind, you’ll probably have an instinct or a preference one way or the other. You know, a lot of them are sort of more practical and almost technical than ideological. On those, I think we could all have an interesting discussion with the president, and I think he’ll be pretty sensible about a lot of that stuff. But there’s going to be a certain dose of…the environmentalism worries me. I’m up here in Canada, in Calgary, and I’m really struck by how worried they are about that. We could end up with some really foolish decisions in energy policy, a lot of money wasted, and some bad regulations because of this kind of green agenda, which I think will be one of the things he throws to the left as he walks away from them in some other areas.

HH: Oh, you bet. Secretary Salazar and the Endangered Species Act and the Wetlands under the Clean Water Act, these could be growth killers, but another day for that. I was getting to this point – I don’t think he can turn the conservative intellectual elite. I mean, he can try, but I don’t think you or Krauthammer or Michael Barone are going to stop believing what they believed beforehand. And as a result, then what do you think happens? Is he Reaganesque, oh, that’s just Tip O’Neill, we get along? Or does he get mad?

BK: I don’t know. I’d say so far, don’t you think in the transition, he’s been more Reaganesque, that is, he could have tried to do further demonization of Bush and Cheney. He could have whipped up his own supporters. He could have attacked the Republicans in Congress and started to rehash old scandals. On the whole, he hasn’t done that. He could have been a little bit more gracious, I think, to the outgoing president.

HH: Yes.

BK: …yesterday, maybe. But on the whole, I think he’s been pretty appropriate, and I think he wants as broad a base of support as he can get for his policies, for as long as possible. I think that’s the way he’s going to try to govern. Now what he actually does in terms of policies, and what the real world does, of course, you know, will end up determining everything. The other thing I do think is I think we’re, you know, this is, we’re going to move very quickly now into reality. I mean, I think all the talk is nice, and all the people swooning about him is nice, but two weeks from now, you know, he’ll have a million different policy choices, and we’ll be debating them and arguing them. And the whole notion that this is a transformative moment and all, I think that will have receded quite a bit.

HH: Now Bill Kristol, having served in the White House, you know how ungainly it can be and how far flung it can be, even though it’s a relatively small piece of dirt. On this morning, we are treated to this message. “Katrina – President Obama will keep the broken promises made by President Bush to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.” You know, it was jarring to a lot of people who thought you know, give, get a fresh start going here, don’t continue the partisan recriminations. Do you credit this to the Obama account? Or do you think oh, we’ve got a staffer assigned to who has a little too much of the campaign left in him?

BK: Well, I hope the latter, because I think it’s really inappropriate. I mean, I would say one of the things that’s impressed me about Obama over the two and a half months since he was elected, he’s transitioned more than most people would in that short of time from being a candidate to being a president-elect and now president. I think he’s internalized that pretty well. I don’t want to be seduced by one dinner. That wasn’t the important thing. But if you look at his public remarks, he started saying things that were appropriate for a commander in chief to say as opposed to things a candidate running against the incumbent commander in chief in effect would say, you know? And I think he hasn’t fully made that transition. Clearly a lot of his staff haven’t. Thus, I suppose, the ridiculous stuff at, which really is inappropriate and foolish. He’s now president. For example, on Iraq, I’m very interested to see how, rhetorically how he deals with that. I think he’s now in charge of young men and women over in Iraq fighting for us. He’s got to abandon this notion that he can continue to believe, of course, that the war is a mistake. He can continue to wish to draw down faster than Bush would have, or that I might wish. But he can’t talk about it as if he’s sending people out to fight for something that’s worthless or why don’t you guys fight for a while, while I figure out how to get out of there. I mean, he’s got to make it clear that these people are fighting for freedom and for America’s national interest, and under his command, and that he wouldn’t send them out of fight if he didn’t think it was important that they achieve their aims, et cetera. So yeah, I think he’s made that transition more than I would have expected from November 5th. But he’s still probably got a little ways to go.

HH: All right, Bill Kristol, let’s conclude by talking about the world at large. If we’re going to have a center-left American president, one who might go somewhat even more left than center-left, it’s a good thing that we’ve got Sarkozy in France, and Berlusconi in Italy, and a conservative government almost certainly going to come in London. And I’m wondering what do you think is best for us to have happen in Israel at this point? I’m hoping Netanyahu wins in three weeks, but you know, obviously we don’t get a vote here. Are you taking some comfort that the new administration is sort of hedged around by conservatives?

BK: Yeah, by Stephen Harper up here in Canada, and that’s going to be Obama’s first visit. And Harper’s message to him is going to be, not going to be a typical message you get from a liberal foreign leader. He’s going to be trying to make sure that Obama hangs tough on foreign policy, and doesn’t given into the environmentalists. Look, I don’t know, I’m probably where you are in terms of what I hope for in Israel. But I suspect the truth is whoever the Israeli prime minister is, is going to tell Obama that look, you know, you can’t negotiate with Hamas, and it’s a tough part of the world, and the key thing is the Iranian nuclear program. Everything else pales before that. People I know who’ve dealt with Obama seriously on this, or talked to them about it, say that he understands this, that he can’t have a successful presidency if at the end of four years Iran’s got nuclear weapons and there’s a nuclear arms race raging in the Middle East. But whether he’s willing to do what it would take to stop that? I think that’s a huge question.

HH: Were you surprised by, last question, the story in the New York Times that George Bush stopped Israel from taking action against that program?

BK: A little bit. I mean, I think Bush’s second term wasn’t quite what his first term was in terms of foreign policy, except for the surge which was extremely important. But you know, to be fair, maybe he thought that look, the next president’s going to have to deal with this, and I’m going to try to leave him at least a decent playing field on which to attempt to deal with the Iranian nuclear program.

HH: Bill Kristol of the, New York Times columnist, always a pleasure, safe travel home from Canada. I hope they let you back in, Bill. I think they will.

End of interview.

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