“These institutions make America stronger, and we shouldn’t be attacking them,” Baker said.
Meacham, guiding the conversation, referred to Trump at one point as Voldemort, saying, “I’m not going to say his name.” (Baker didn’t get the reference, and Obama had to explain it to him). His appearance with Baker even gave Obama a reason to stop by the home of George H.W. Bush and bring him a pair of socks, which the older former president is famous for loving.
Obama and Baker couldn’t have more different experiences over the past 30-add years: while Obama was writing poetry to his college girlfriend at Columbia, Baker was negotiating Reagan’s tax cuts; as Obama was coming off his losing 2000 primary run against Representative Bobby Rush back home in Chicago, Baker was off to Florida to manage the recount battle that put George W. Bush in the White House. Though Obama praised George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy, which Baker managed, “as important and as deft and as effective a set of foreign policy initiatives as we saw in recent years,” he and Baker don’t fully agree on many areas of foreign policy. They’ve never endorsed the same candidate for anything.
Tuesday night, they agreed on almost everything: the never-ending news cycle is awful, any sense of the center or rational debate has disappeared from Washington, facts have been turned into a maw of partisan point-scoring, Congress is stuck in permanent campaign mode, the internet has made human interaction worse. Obama even got Baker to eventually agree on the need for independent redistricting reform.
Mostly they kept agreeing that America shouldn’t stand for what Trump is doing. And they agreed that no one in power in either party had recognized or adapted quickly enough to how much frustration there was out in the country about how rapidly the world has changed.
“You start getting a politics that’s based on, ‘That person’s not like me and it must be their fault,’ and you start getting a politics based on a nationalism that’s not pride in country, but hatred for someone on the other side of the border,” Obama said. “And you start getting the kind of politics that does not allow for compromise because it’s based on passions and emotions.”
Baker interjected: “It’s identity politics.”
Obama built out the argument.
“I think it’s important to remember that identity politics doesn’t just apply when it’s black people or gay people or women,” he said.
“No,” Baker chimed in.
“The folks who originated identity politics are the ones who said ‘three-fifths clause’ and all that stuff. That’s still out there,” Obama went on. “Jim Crow was identity politics.”
They agreed that they and everyone else had all bought in too much to the kind of thinking most identified with Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History.”
“The Washington consensus, whatever you want to call it, got a little too confident. They’re looking at GDP numbers, and they’re looking at the internet, and everything’s looking pretty great,” Obama said, acknowledging a “great smugness on the part of America and American elites, thinking, we’ve got this all figured out.”