Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Friday, May 01, 2009

Obama Beyond the Sound Bites

His press conferences are dazzling performances, but to get a glimpse of Barack Obama in the round takes the oldest journalistic setting of all, an extended one-on-one interview by David Leonhardt for this Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

Under questioning to show his state of mind rather than elicit sound bites, we get a picture of how the President sees the economic crisis in the long run beyond the bailouts and fixes.

"The critics have said, you’re doing too much, you can’t do all this at once," he observes. "Congress can’t digest everything. I just reject that. There’s nothing inherent in our political process that should prevent us from making these difficult decisions now, as opposed to 10 years from now or 20 years from now...

"It is true that as tough an economic time as it is right now, we haven’t had 42 months of 20, 30 percent unemployment. And so the degree of desperation and the shock to the system may not be as great. And that means that there’s going to be more resistance to any of these steps: reforming the financial system or reforming our health care system or doing something about energy...

But part of my job I think is to bridge that gap between the status quo and what we know we have to do for our future."

One of his goals in "the post-bubble economy," Obama says, is "restoring a balance between making things and providing services, whether it’s marketing or catering to people or servicing folks in some way. Those are all good jobs, and we’re not going to return to an economy in which manufacturing is as large a percentage as it was back in the 1940s"

He cites a campaign visit to a Seattle plant where welders and tradesmen were retrofitting buildings: "They’re not performing the same kind of manufacturing that their fathers might have, but with similar skill sets they are now making hospitals and schools and office buildings much more energy efficient, and...providing enormous value to the economy as a whole."

For such a future, the President points to "the smart grid," a huge project to modernize energy use, which is being hampered because "we don’t have enough trained electricians to lay down those lines." Government, he says, can help with "matching up the training with the need out there."

In looking at today's work force, Obama questions the level of education today by citing his grandmother who never went to college but worked her way up to being a bank vice-president. She "could write a better letter" than some of his former students at the University of Chicago Law School, he says.

As he pursues what he calls his "ruthless pragmatism" on the economy, Obama is asked about public impatience about not seeing improvement fast enough.

"In some ways it’s liberating," he says, "in the sense that whether I’m a one-termer or a two-termer, the problems are big enough and fundamental enough that I can’t sort of game it out. It’s not one of these things where I can say, Oh, you know what, if I time it just right, then the market is going to be going up and unemployment will be going down right before re-election. These are much bigger, much more systemic problems. And so in some ways you just kind of set aside the politics."

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