PBS talk show host Charlie Rose hosted New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt, and columnist Thomas Friedman on December 16 to discuss domestic politics and the year’s events around the world. Friedman in particular was agitated about Obama's failure to sell his wonderful proposals and complained of the president: “He has never leveraged us. He never -- us, I mean the American people.” Or did he mean "us," as in New York Times liberals like the ones around Rose's table?
The entire roundtable lamented President Obama’s inability to convince Americans of his liberal agenda. Abramson faulted only Obama’s “communications failures,” not the big-government policies themselves.
Friedman suggested Obama was not getting enough credit for his accomplishments and praised Obama’s health care “reform,” his auto bailout, and tougher mileage regulations, but seemed to fret that Obama had not successfully used Times liberals like himself to push his agenda, before quickly correcting himself: “He has never leveraged us. He never -- us, I mean the American people.” Friedman also reluctantly revealed that he had pestered the president to repeat his themes more consistently during a gathering Obama had with columnists.
About 30 minutes into the program, Rose turned to Friedman.
CHARLIE ROSE: “When you looked at this President, Tom, had conversations with him, we`ve been -- as he met with columnists and perhaps more. What, how have you, how has your assessment of him changed? What has he not been able to do that you thought, in all the euphor of 2008, he might be able to do?”
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: “I voted for him for one reason: I thought he would change the polls, not read the polls. I thought he had that ability to articulate and galvanize a transformational agenda on some really key things: energy, debt, deficit, et cetera.”
ROSE: “And the fact that he didn’t is because he didn’t have the?”
FRIEDMAN: “I don’t want to sort of give him the press. Let’s start with -- I think you know he deserves, and has not received, the credit he deserves from just preventing us from going into depression, from what he inherited. I think extending health care to millions more Americans and even though we haven’t addressed the cost issue which is complicated and certainly didn’t have much Republican help, is a big deal. I think saving the auto industry is a big deal. And he just passed a -- just got through a regulation on mileage standards that’s going to double mileage standards in this country, you know, over the next decade, 13 years. That’s actually going to be phenomenal. I mean it’s going to have a huge impact. So those who say he did nothing, I’m just -- I’m not ready to say that. At the same time, for reasons that, you know, Jill and David have already articulated, ultimately he was there to put us on a sustainable economic path to recovery and put us in a position to succeed in the 21st century.”
Three minutes later:
JILL ABRAMSON, executive editor: “But I actually think your best column on Obama was [laughter, crosstalk] at the risk of pandering to my colleague, was about like the communications failure. That he just has -- it isn’t the individual policies, it’s the failure to create understandable narratives around them.”
ROSE: “He had a brilliant narrative in 2008 and lost the narrative, he’s lost the narrative of government.”
ABRAMSON: “I don’t know. I have been dying to ask Tom this, and it’s possibly an apocryphal story but I’m told that one of the gatherings that Obama had with columnists, you were speaking up and saying, you know, what you need to understand is you can’t say something once, you can’t even say it only three times. Five at least, and in the same words and, you know, you cite health care. That is a big achievement. But how many Americans can tell us what actually it did and what’s in it?”
FRIEDMAN: “His auto [indecipherable] is transformational and he never spoke about it.”
ABRAMSON: “So how did he react when you said you have to say it, but you have to explain it, but keep saying it? Keep explaining it.”
ROSE: “And so you said that the question I`ve always wanting to ask Tom is what?”
ABRAMSON: “Is that true? What did he say?”
FRIEDMAN: “You know, without -- it is said, you know, that --
FRIEDMAN: “...that what I tried to communicate, and I think we have all had this experience, this is actually the worst. I have been in Washington since 1989 this is the worst communicating administration I have ever had any experience with. I have never seen people so bad at telling their own story, Ok, like real achievements, Ok. And I don’t understand it, frankly. I assume it starts with the President.
But at the same time, you know, there is -- again, he did these really important things. But at the end of the day, I feel like [Obama advisor David] Axelrod’s in the room and saying Mr. President, we need to win the third district of Pennsylvania, therefore you cannot use the word, phrase ‘climate change’ for the next 18 months. And rather than say ‘No, I’m actually going to change the polls on that, I’m going to change the polls around the grand bargain, we lost to Boehner but we actually never’ – he’s never leveraged us. He never -- us, I mean the American people. You know, his own constituency he’s never brought that pressure on Republicans....”