Peter Baker Discusses Obama’s Legacy, Trump’s Divisiveness, Polarized Country

OBAMA AND TRUMP: New York Times White House Correspondent Peter Baker, author of the recent book “Obama: The Call of History,” spoke to a full house Monday night at Princeton University’s Arthur Lewis Auditorium, Robertson Hall, on the subject of President Obama’s legacy in the current Trump era. 

By Donald Gilpin

Peter Baker is still trying to figure out who is Barack Obama, and what exactly will be the substance of his legacy?

Chief White House correspondent for the NYTimes since 2008, Baker told a full-house gathering of about 200 at Princeton University’s Arthur Lewis Auditorium, Robertson Hall on Monday that he wrote his new book, Obama: the Call of History (June 2017), to try and tackle those questions. 

“We don’t really yet know or understand him,” Baker said. “President Obama will go down in history as one of our most fascinating and perplexing presidents. Very rarely have we had a person reaching the highest level in American politics who is openly, overtly introspective and reflective about who he is as a person. He got his first appearance on the national stage with a book trying to figure out who he was, a book of introspection and exploration.”

Commenting on Obama’s withdrawal from the public light since leaving office, Baker questioned, “Why is he silent?” A reporter for the Washington Post for 20 years who covered presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before joining the Times, Baker stated that he is hoping that Obama “will do what no president has done before: write an honest memoir. That’s something we would all benefit from.”

Baker noted that Obama did speak out on DACA and health care, ”but for the most part he wants to stay out of the public realm” to avoid providing Trump with a target to attack. 

“For Obama, this must be a frustrating moment,” Baker said in discussing Trump’s ongoing efforts to undo so many of the Obama administration’s accomplishments, including health care, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, the Paris climate accords, environmental regulations, and the nuclear agreement with Iran.

“Trump has been singularly focused on undoing President Obama’s legacy,” rather than moving forward on his own priorities, Baker said. “Obama’s legacy is so unsettled. We don’t know.”

Baker, who has taken considerable criticism from the White House in the past year, had many stories to tell about Obama and other presidents. He pointed out that Obama wanted to associate himself with, and was often compared to, Abraham Lincoln. But he was also compared to Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and, at different junctures during his two terms in the White House, even to Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter.

Recalling Obama’s observation that “I don’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills,” Baker noted, “He wanted to be remembered as a president who did things. He wanted to create a new foundation.”

Obama, Baker noted, seemed to represent different things to different people. “A lot of people saw in him what they wanted to see. To conservatives he was a socialist, the second coming of Karl Marx or Bernie Sanders, dividing the country in some people’s view.”

And, on the other side, he promised so much that some people blamed him for not living up to the promises he made. “People on the left found his compromises frustrating and dispiriting — on health care, drone strikes, immigration. He could be at the same time both too far left and too far right.”

Going on to describe the physical and ideological divide in the country, Baker stated, “We are at this moment a polarized country. We have divided ourselves, and we’re in a 15-year cycle of thinking our country is screwed up.” He pointed out that for at least the last 15 years polls have shown that people think the country is not on the right track and that Trump “reflects our own sense of anger.”

In attempting to explain why the United States has become such a polarized country, Baker provided some historical perspective from the lifetimes of many in the audience and their parents. “Politics has always been rough,” he said. “We’ve had McCarthy, Vietnam, Watergate. We created this government the way we created it because we wanted to fight about the big things.”

Baker added that currently the political parties are particularly “calcified in their political views,” and he mentioned that modern media technology has played a role in that. “People live in their own factual worlds,” he said. “No wonder we don’t get along well; we don’t even live in the same environment.” 

Trump as a divider, rather than seeking the traditional presidential role of uniter, Baker pointed out, might be an appropriate reflection of the state of the country in 2017. 

He went on to express his doubts that the current situation signaled any permanent changes in the country’s politics, predicting that the next president would be a reaction to Trump. “That’s what we do. The next president will probably be the opposite of what we just had.”