The president hosted his first lunch for newspeople (more accurately newsmen and one newswoman) in the private dining room of the residence. It is always a thrill to be part of this lunch. I was first invited in 2006 with President Bush. It's an opportunity for some frank conversation in a relaxed, informal setting. Of course sports was the initial topic (guys) but I was able to direct the chit chat more towards the Oscars and movies. President Obama said he had watched "Slumdog Millionaire" at the White House and loved it … in many ways, he said it reminded him of growing up in Jakarta, where he lived between the ages of 6 and 10. He also really liked "Gran Torino," and the table pretty much agreed that Clint Eastwood was enormously talented in acting, as well as directing and composing. He missed the Oscars because the governors were at the White House for a formal dinner. That was about it in terms of small talk. The discussion soon moved to something much bigger: the economy.
The conversation was on background with a number of White House officials, so I'll spend the next few minutes characterizing what they had to say. I think it's safe to say we'll hear from Dr. Obama tonight. He'll level with the American people and explain that the patient is sick, here's the diagnosis and that the prognosis is good. I got the impression he's going to try to explain these complicated issues in layman's terms without sounding too professorial or as if he's lecturing at an Introduction to Macroeconomics class.
But he will try to connect the dots and explain why the credit crisis is impacting people on a personal level, whether it's plant layoffs, college loans or home foreclosures. When asked about nationalizing the banks, they said they would do what they had to do to stabilize the economy but wouldn't elaborate much further. It was pointed out there are 9,000 banks in the country and the top five probably have 70 percent of the troubled assets, according to White House officials. Also, they want Americans to know that there's a big difference between, say, Citibank, and a local or regional bank. It seems, they say, that the president is resigned to the fact that he'll be second-guessed until the economy turns around but he's making a series of judgment calls they say he believes will solve the problem.
They did say that one person told the president something about the presidency that was very true: "by the time something reaches your desk it's really hard." I think there will be a significant effort to convince Americans that helping out bankers isn't something the administration is desperate to do, but he'll explain, it seems, why doing these things, and the plan to give homeowners mortgage assistance are needed to improve the overall economy. Connecting the dots, which I think everyone acknowledged, will be a difficult thing to do in a 45-minute speech. And while no solution is perfect, it's clear, they say, that not acting could be disastrous. They don't appear to agree with the notion that "because government cannot act perfectly, it shouldn't act." And that getting it 98 percent right and 2 percent wrong is a risk that they'll have to take.
These economic times were, not surprisingly compared to those during the FDR administration, and there was an honest appraisal that these moves, that needed to be made quickly, feed into ideological fault lines that are hard, if not impossible to erase in Washington.
Healthcare, energy and education will be discussed. Some foreign policy, but not much. When it comes to healthcare, the philosophy is that coverage cannot be extended until costs are controlled.
The president's mood was good. Serious, but upbeat – and he seemed to be very cognizant of the huge responsibility and challenging situation he's facing vis-à-vis the economy. The White House, he feels, is a very nice place to live, especially because he can have dinner almost every night with his family. The Obamas play a game called roses and thorns, where the girls talk about the good things that happened to them that day and the bad things – a device that gets them to "open up." (I need to try that tactic at my dinner table!) One night, Malia, after hearing about some of her father's challenges, remarked that he had a "very thorny job!" Meanwhile, all the baubles – perks like Camp David, helicopters, etc. – still make it hard to live in a bubble, it seems, because the President can't go to the corner drugstore, run on the National Mall, or sit in a diner and soak in the mood or overhear conversations.
He said he wishes he could do the job anonymously. At that point, his senior adviser said: "Then you'd be Dick Cheney." That got a big laugh.