Question: How do you assess President Obama’s effectiveness in handling the financial crisis?
Eliot Spitzer: I went through a first year in office as Governor where you come in with tremendous expectations and you try very hard to define a reform agenda and a year later you wake up and you say, wait a minute, not everything had worked. It’s difficult. The effort to reform any system, any structure is fraught with the risk that the forces of the status quo will array against you, whether it is hospitals, whether it is the unions that work in the hospitals, whether it is the teaching establishment. So, it doesn’t mean they’re bad, good, indifferent, or invidious. It just means that those who were benefiting from the current system don’t want things to change. The President has encountered that. Has he pushed aggressively enough for reform in every instance? No, I don’t think so. The financial services I’ve been critical of where he has ended up until very recently with Paul Volcker’s ascension on the issues of restructuring the banks, which I think is important.
On other issues, I think he has been spectacular. I think the tone that he has set, the fact of a President who is thoughtful, who is smart, who is inquisitive, who tries to address issues, whether it be global warming or our relations with foreign nations at the level of intellectual accuracy and thoughtfulness is wonderful to see. But these issues are sometimes intractable. I mean, you look at the roadblocks to progress in the Middle East. He’s tried; he has appointed superb people. Does it mean you can get parties that have irreconcilable differences to sit down and agree?
So I think he is a wonderful public servant, he will go down, I’m persuaded, as a great President. The recent political bumps with the election of Republican Senator from Massachusetts are part of the both maturation process and process of learning how to use the levers of power that will make him stronger in the years ahead.
Question: What advice would you give the Democratic Party as midterm elections approach?
Eliot Spitzer: Well, look. I hesitate to say I’m giving advice. I just, you know – but here’s what I’ve said and what I’ve written for Slate and elsewhere. There is a choice that the White House has to make at this point. Do they go the path of instrumentalism? Do they choose to try to be incremental in their efforts and thereby reach accommodations with Republican Party in a spirit of bipartisanship? Or, alternatively, do they do what I would encourage which is to say, “Wait a minute. We have a progressive agenda, that agenda of reform in financial services, in healthcare and education is correct. We still have 59 votes in the United States Senate; we still have a very significant majority in the House of Representatives. We will do everything we can to enact a meaningful fundamental reform agenda because that’s what this nation needs.” Let’s not kid ourselves. We are in a very treacherous point in terms of our economy, in terms of our competitive position, visa vie the world, in terms of the social contract that has been crumbling in our nation. So if we don’t take those fundamental steps, we’ll be in trouble. So, I would encourage them to be aggressive. Do that which his perhaps riskier, which is to push the progressive agenda at this very moment, and if it leads in November consequently to a choice to be made by the electorate, that’s good. Let the public see a choice between a Democratic Party that believes in progressive values and a Republican Party that is standing in opposition, and we will see which way we go.
I think the mistake they have made, and this has been a mistake of tone and a mistake of communication, has been to let the Republican Party over the last number of months appear to be the party of populist anger. And it is absolutely mind-boggling that Sarah Palin and Scott Brown have been the beneficiaries of populist anger, rather than Barack Obama and Democratic Senators. So, I think that is a communication problem that we need to think about and overcome.
Recorded January 21, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen