May 21st, 2009
11:50 PM ET

Gergen: 'Extreme Challenges can be opportunities'

Program Note: Tune in to hear more from David Gergen on the challenges facing President Obama tonight on an AC360° special, “Extreme Challenges: The Next 100 days.”

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David Gergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

In our conversations for the Extreme Challenges special with Anderson Cooper, I was struck once again by both the enormity and complexity of the demands that President Obama will face in coming months. He started his presidency with the most daunting burden of any chief executive since Franklin Roosevelt, and if anything, it only seems to grow heavier.

As someone who has deep roots in presidencies of the past, I must say that I was among those who worried early on that he was taking on too much, too fast. My experience has been that a White House is able at best to handle one or two big issues, and when it suddenly has five or six balls in the air, it almost always drops one or two. Barack Obama has at least a half dozen flying above him - the economy, health care, global warming, Afpak, Iran, Iraq - the list goes on and on. So, I have been worried.

But one of the lessons I have also learned is that every fresh generation of leaders can teach a thing or two to older generations about how to get things done. And maybe, just maybe, we have a President who can do it all and do it with grace and style. (What did they say about Ginger Rogers: she showed that it was possible to dance as well as Fred Astaire and do it in heels and backwards?)

From the perspective of the current White House, one advantage is already apparent from the Obama approach. He is pressing forward on so many different fronts that it is hard for his opponents to focus their fire. One day he is going about the auto industry, the next about credit cards, the next about detainees. There are so many issues bubbling that the press can't sustain a single story line and it is hard for Republicans or even moderate Democrats to stir up much of a debate.

Take health care reform. When the Clintons proposed a major overhaul of the system, the insurers and small business folks were able to raise a heck of a ruckus within weeks after the White House put forward a proposal. Gradually public support eroded, and in a Democratic Congress, the health care reform package never even got out of committee in either the House or the Senate.

By contrast, the Obama team has so many initiatives floating and most of the bill writing has been assigned to Capitol Hill instead of the White House (where the press is mostly focused), so that a health care reform package is now winding its way through the Senate Finance Committee and will almost certainly make it out of committee and onto the floor in a matter of a few months. And there is no huge national debate! The public isn't aroused one way or the other by the big issues buried within reform because there isn't the kind of hot, mammoth debate we had in the country when the Clintons were pushing forward. As a result, it appears to me that health care reform has the best chance of passage under President Obama in more than half a century.

There is a legitimate question of whether we ought to be having a bigger debate about the bill shaping up on health care. Personally, I believe the country would be better served if we were to develop a national consensus through debate prior to passage - it is always healthier in a democracy to thrash big issues out before committing the nation to a new course of action. As a political matter, however, one has to say that the Obama approach is working better than many - including me - would have thought.

So, yes, the President does face Extreme Challenges in the coming months - challenges that are daunting by any standard - and we had an excellent series of conversations with Anderson. But it is also clear that he sees them as opportunities, and he is seizing upon them to advance his agenda.

soundoff (109 Responses)
  1. Chotard

    There is only one thing to do. Get back home and tend to home related stuff. Take on the big dogs and park your sled in the shed. Cut off less important stuff.

    May 22, 2009 at 11:56 am |
  2. Chotard

    In other words ....take the bull by the horns. Don't let Carter have liver pills. and all that.

    May 22, 2009 at 10:43 am |
  3. Chotard

    You can't afford to let things linger. Multi-tasking would only hurt you in the long run. It's still there. Put it all on a little peice of paper, then draw. One thing at a time and one day at a time.

    May 22, 2009 at 10:40 am |
  4. Mukuru

    Good account Mr. Gergen; the 21st century requires us to be multi-tasking; the president is a living example.
    Should the American people give him support, he has the chance to change the course of the country for the better.


    May 22, 2009 at 10:19 am |
  5. Chotard

    It seems to me that the current administration is being thrown from one big time headline to the next. What they need to do is tackle one important thing, fix that and the hell with the other things. Then move to the next. That is what leaders should do. They should block out paper work and negativity.

    May 22, 2009 at 9:44 am |
  6. Brian

    I sure hope he's consistently getting enough sleep and exercise and is still laying off the smokes, all essentials in his situation.

    May 22, 2009 at 9:32 am |
  7. Cameron

    It is encourging to have a president who possesses authentic intelligence. Apart from charisma and world class communication skills, he is an early champion among politicians. Predsident Obama knows how to "eat an elephant" - one bite at a time. He is also grounded in truth...public debate is a great ally to truth. Let us continue to debate vigorously these most serious issues of our time. This country is in the midst of a profound shake-up. Tradition and party principles will be tested as we work through major issues. I, for one, am glad Obama is at the helm. I believe we have a predident who wants to put our nation on a path in line with the best intentions of the US Constitution. These conversations help citizens to get involved.

    May 22, 2009 at 9:13 am |
  8. Susan Williamson

    Mr. Gergen, excellent article! I have faith in President Obama and his abilities to handle several problems at once. We must give him the benefit for he was indeed handed a total mess. Having the Senate & Congress work together on health care is a great idea. Different ideas, it brings people together, and the President as the final authority.

    You commented on all that is on his plate. Now add Dick Cheney and his daughter. Torture 13: they authorized it, they decided how to implement it, they crafted the legal fig leaf to justify it, and now they are covering their rears. In doing so, they spread fear and we are less safe.

    The President is moving forward as he cleans up after others. We, as a nation, need to become more involved and more supportive.

    May 22, 2009 at 8:59 am |
  9. Patty

    He's a truly ambitious President. We haven't seen one in long time.

    It's all in who he has helping him as President. He's assembled a young,brilliant, energetic greoup. Thus far, this team is serving him well. When one ceases to be an asset, hopefully, he'll replace
    them and continue to move forward...in this climate, no lackees.

    May 22, 2009 at 6:38 am |
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