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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.”

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/04/29/art.obama2.gi.jpg]

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. David

    To Cindy in GA, we could say the same about your response. Just another bitter Republican who no matter what the President does good dead or bad, you will always find a way to spout off negativity. President Obama has done more in 100 days than your buddy Bush did in his entire last year in office. The articles and comments really are useless to changing how we each feel about the President. Democrats will be Democrats and Republicans will be Republicans. We see what we choose to see and not. I support Obama but I can recognize his is not perfect and I don't expect my President to be. I expect him to make mistakes here and there and occasionally fail. But I still stand behind him because he wants to change things for the better.

    May 21, 2009 at 10:02 pm |
  2. Charlie

    How do we have a debate in this country? The Clinton health care reform was defeated by Fred and Louise– but that's advertising, not debate. Those with a financial interest in keeping the status quo in health care can buy enough advertising to sour the public's enthusiasm for any health care plan, regardless how well thought out. I travel a lot internationally, and in most countries, getting routine health care is like going to the hardware store and buying a screwdriver–not the economic disaster it is for all Americans, whether you're paying $thousands in insurance or forfeiting a week's groceries for a doctor's visit because you don't have the insurance. So, yes, obscene profits are going into the health care system we have. We can't expect a fair debate from the people making that money. Anyone who remembers the early days of the first Clinton Administration will know what to expect. It's no wonder Obama's doing a policy razzle-dazzle.

    May 21, 2009 at 10:00 pm |
  3. Sean H. (NY)

    Mr. Gergen:

    I only wish the readers (left, right, moderate – whatever) could appreciate with an open mind how balanced and non-partisan your (Mr. Gergen) writings truly are. Whether I agree or disagree with the myriad issues you address, you do it as fairly and objectively as possible on a topic (politics) that almost always displaces the writers and readers to take a side (their own). THAT is nearly impossible and underappreciated by some of your readers.

    Like the saying, "a mind is like a parachute – it only works while its open"...so too are y(our) thoughts. It's a pleasure reading your pieces all these years with an open mind....I can only learn more Thanks Dave.

    May 21, 2009 at 10:00 pm |
  4. Andy J

    Yeah, by keeping the public distracted and taking on too many things at once, Obama is able to cram is extreme agenda down America's throat, without any meaningful debate... oh... and having the media in his back pocket doesn't seem to hurt. The MSM has the attention span of a 2 year old.

    Why don't you fools take the time to express how things are continuing to take a nose dive, despite the massive spending and expansion of government. I hated W because he spent so much darn money.. Obama has already eclipsed that, yet i don't hear anyone say boo.

    Gergen, you can eat a gherkin, you tool. Grow a back bone and say what needs to be said.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:59 pm |
  5. Pat Omaha, NE

    President Obama is an intelligent, caring, capable man. If his philosophy
    of life and his ability to communicate is allowed to permeate our society
    we will arrive at common ground and find the answers we need to make
    a difference in our world.
    I have complete confidence in him.
    I wish Cheney would go back to Wyoming and watch his oil wells!
    He is trying to undermine Obama and have us return to the atmosphere of fear and arrogance.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:59 pm |
  6. Jimmie Lewis Franklin

    Well, David Gergen has finally awaken from his sleep, or at least shed some of the hidden conservatism that I have long believed resided deep within his bones. Nope, wrong: I have a friendly dispostion toward David Gergen because most of the time he is a thoughtful critic despite his tilt toward the right. Jimmie

    May 21, 2009 at 9:57 pm |
  7. Johnny

    Awesome article. I agree with you totally.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:56 pm |
  8. GYvette_TX

    Thanks David for your commentary, it was very insightful. Obama is keeping them on the offense, so that he can deliver the plans. Great Strategy!!

    The RNC is so dysfunctional right now they can't rally enough support to a water trough. X-VP coming out of his undisclosed location not helpiing. I say, keep the ball moving and deliver on the promises to the American people while the RNC implodes.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:56 pm |
  9. Kevin (FL)

    more "A slobbering love affair" with Obama.

    What democracy? Jamming through bills with little thought, review, or consensus? That is NOT good for the country – regardless of which party is in power.

    What makes you think another rush job, this time on health care is going to work. Just look behind the scenes at Treasury. Critical people not in place, no clear decision making processes in place, and little movement towards delivering on the many promises of Obama rhetoric.

    Auto industry? I own a Chrysler product. It's of mediocre quality. Now the unions are going to own 55% of the company. I will NEVER buy another Chrysler product. Why? Several reason come to mind. One of them is my excellent auto mechanic who when asked, said I should absolutely NOT buy a GM or Chrysler product. Besides the quality issues, he said the unions have gotten involved in the pricing of spare parts and the cost of them have skyrocketed. So instead of avoiding the dealership to escape expensive and predatory repair practices, now you will be stuck with one source, very expensive part prices...

    uh, no thanks....

    the Obama bubble will prove to be the biggest yet...

    now let's see if this makes it past the CNN censors, lol...

    May 21, 2009 at 9:55 pm |
  10. Jim

    Mr. Gergen if they President stopped walking you would break your nose.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:54 pm |
  11. David

    Obama is modernizing the White House strategy. In business it would be absurd to focus on one or two major issues. It is well known in high tech companies that with the right team, you can overcome a multitude of problems simultaneously and efficiently. And when one solution fails to meet the mark, you immediately get to work again and fix it. This is a basic Silicon Valley strategy that I have worked with for the last 10 years.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:53 pm |
  12. James

    Obama has more of a "community" than he bargained for. I have serious doubts that he is aware of the job he has to do. If his job was to speak with flawless language, he has it down pat.

    I just hope he doesn't get us all killed with this attitude he has toward the enemy. His approach is a bit pitiful.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:53 pm |
  13. Harry

    Bush, like so many other Facist dictators, used catch words like "democracy" as a means to an end, never really believing in them, indeed, he tried to take away so many civil liberties during his reign (like the innocuous and innocent enough sounding so-called "Patriot" Act). He tried to pass laws for capitol punishment and martial law and sending people who resist to internment camps and concentration camps. While these are in fact a long ways down the road, he did put the pieces in place, sewing the seeds for what's to come.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:52 pm |
  14. Winston

    This article is filled with instances in which you give Obama the benefit of the doubt.

    Maybe if he just focused on a few big issues and actually accomplish them well he would be more effective. From what I see, it seems he's loading up his plate to the brink to cover for his average work he will put in.

    What do I know, right? I'm just another bitter Republican who is backwards and offers no solutions.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:52 pm |
  15. Shane

    WOW... Reading some of these comments, I can see some of these people are republicans! You all are sore losers. And Dick Chaney is the leader of the new sore losers party! Let it go, move over and move on!

    May 21, 2009 at 9:50 pm |
  16. Winston Smith

    A very generous interpretation by Gergen of the "Idea of the Week" approach by the Obama administration. Unfortunately, the Pelosi fiasco and Cheney's speech appear to have taken Barack off his game–look for the media to quickly turn the focus next week to something else so that we can get back on the inexorable march to single payer healthcare and crippling taxation levels.

    As for David Gergen...well, there's a good reason he's on CNN. If he thinks any significant portion of the citizenry is equipped to have an intelligent conversation on healthcare and that the media is ready to put honest data out for discussion, then perhaps I should contact him about a bridge in Brooklyn that I have for sale.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:48 pm |
  17. egresor

    i especially enjoy david comments on ac360.

    concise and measured and without an agenda.

    i also hope that obama is up to the task and his performances so far indicate he is.

    intelligence and an understanding of our "real" constitution has already begun to give people confidence that he is working for their betterment. something not seen during the president cheney years. where it was steady downhill--one mistake, one corruption, one illegality after another. ignoring our laws and refusing to obey them.

    a president who is above the law is called a dictator.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:47 pm |
  18. Allen, SD

    What appears to be a miracle is often found to be nothing more than Smoke and Mirrors. The Obamanation is praising the miracles but it may be too late before they realize that it was a fraud. Those who remember the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark will remember the beautiful face of a woman coming as a ghost from the Ark only to turn into their destroyer. Let's hope Obama is discovered for what he is before he can become the destroyer of the United States.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:45 pm |
  19. Ed Henso

    If there is one thing we have all learned about this new young president and that is: he's very capable of juggling 6 or more balls in the air at the same time. These are tough times in America. Times that call for a leader to take on challenges of the day with boldness and energy.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:45 pm |
  20. Lynn

    I wish the press would press Cheney on what single national problem that was solved during his eight years in office. NONE...zilch...

    Maybe Cindy could explain these great "advancemenst" made in eight years on infrastructure, stopping the economic collapse, curing the cost of Medicare, improving the standard of education, looking at the looming bankruptcy of Social Security, saving American jobs, improving the tax system...President Obama had had about 130 days....they had EIGHT YEARS...

    May 21, 2009 at 9:43 pm |
  21. Craig

    Mr. Gergen I am truly shocked by your recent lack of objectivity with respect to our President. I have long valued your honest opinions but have been most disappointed by your acquiesence to the current media environment which discourages any type of honest challenge to the President. We would all be better served by more objective discussion of varied opinions than this trivial support of a President. It is just such empty rhetoric as opposed to honest analysis I had long been accustomed to.

    For instance all this talk about if we improve our image in the world that is the best tool against terrorism, has anyone questioned what are image was on 9/10/01? Our image on that day had unequivocally been formed by the Clinton foreign policy (very similar to the current Obama policy) and not the Bush policy at such an early stage in his Presidency, and yet our sterling image did not deter the attacks of the next day.

    Empty platitudes do not protect our country...how many times must we learn the same lessons.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:43 pm |
  22. Arnie

    Didn't the former VP say that there was WMD's in Iraq. Well we know how that turned out. No WMD's and we attacked a sovereign nation for no reason at all. From faulty information that we obtained by torturing people. This proves that these techniques don't work. If so why is he defending them. You know why because he is not telling the truth. We will be attacked again but it will be because the enemy we fight was given the proof they have been trying to get for years. That our values is only good when everything is nice and peaceful. And the constitution is only apply to things of our choice. In many ways, the terrorist already won because they have made us abandon everything we believed in and value.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:42 pm |
  23. Mark Kren

    "Patnap" has obviously being living in a cave somewhere. Certain groups around the world have hated us since LONG before Obama....LONG before Dubya.....LONG before Clinton.........in fact, Islamist extremists have hated our freedom and our democracy since 1776. "Patnap" obviously doesn't have a clue about international politics or history. Hasn't he/she seen the photos of the Middle East radicals burning the portraits of Obama? Evidently not. "Patnap" is yet another ignorant voter.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:41 pm |
  24. Ken Margo, NYC

    Gee Cindy, you sure sound like the rest of the old bitter republicans. Angry anti Obama sour pusses like you always writes he back tracks but never write what he back tracked on!! He is entitled to change his mind as the situation dictates. why don't the repulsicans grow up, stop whining and put some good ideas on the table to improve the country.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:41 pm |
  25. Tom, NY

    Cindy, maybe if the previous administration had bothered to spend even a fraction of the time the current one is spending on various issues, the mess we're in right now could perhaps had been avoided or at the very least a lot less pressing.

    I used to be a republican but am no longer. Thank Bush for that.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:40 pm |
  26. Russell (Pittsburgh, PA)

    You guys, do yourselves a favor. Get your news from more than one source. Spend some time on CNN or MSNBC and then hop over to Fox News and make up your own mind on the matter after seeing a left bias and a right bias to the same story.

    People are so completely hardwired to think a certain way it is sickening. Yes, the previous administration made some mistakes and no, Obama is not doing everything right and he is making mistakes. There is an opposition to your thoughts!! Challenge yourself by taking in the thoughts and opinions of the opposing side to either rethink your position or cement it.

    My gut tells me that Obama has bit off more than he can chew and he doesn't have the strength in his core team to keep the juggling act up. You think Biden is his point man that is going to help offload this? Nope. Obama should have stuck with a few core issues and done them well.

    Health care isn't going to sneak by.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:40 pm |
  27. yen

    Youn can see that it is hard. But Obama is a multitasker. And there is no time to do one issue at a time. All the big issues have to be dealt with all at the same time. Thay have all arrived at the same time. He is doing great!!

    May 21, 2009 at 9:38 pm |
  28. Rich

    well, well well, Obama is FINALLY forcing the government to be functional and some, like Cindy, just can't handle it.

    Move aside Cindy, your beloved President Bush's mistakes will be fixed without you.

    Geez, some people just don't deserve American citizenship.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:38 pm |
  29. Trylon

    President Obama, however, is completely ignoring the national problem of not enough Homes for Unwed Gay People. The problem is not going away just because Dick Cheney is in hiding.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:38 pm |
  30. Va Womyn

    Why is Obama so afraid of Dick Cheney?

    May 21, 2009 at 9:37 pm |
  31. John

    The reason that Obama is able to "tackle" so many problems at once is because he has a Congress and Media that adore him. If CNN didn't have an organizational support for liberal policies, we would see a much better critique of Obama's actions. Additionally, it's easy to address many problems at once when all you need to do is cut and paste "It's George Bush's fault and I'm going to do something different" into the solution for each one.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:37 pm |
  32. Robert

    I love how health care rationing and killing the R&D incentive for companies is being called reform.

    We have the best health care system in the world. Our "poor" have the best benefits and services.

    Yet, spoiled children with nary a bit of knowledge of how "health care gets created" or why "paying for what you use" are driving this insanity.

    No one leaves the states for good health care but they certainly do come here.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:36 pm |
  33. Mauri

    When President Obama was sworn in on January 20, we could only hope that he was bringing new life and clarity to the presidency, realizing that he hadn't very far to go to surpass the ones whose place he was taking. As David Gergen so aptly put it, this is obviously a young man of vigor and foresight who has not disappointed us so far.
    Now one of the actors from the past administration has reared his ugly head once more, which means that those of us who really suffered during their tenure had better take up our own emotional weapons and come to President Obama's defense. Along with that stance, we had better pray – pray that Dick Cheney will slink back into his lair never to be heard from again.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:30 pm |
  34. JScott

    Obama doesn't know exactly what he's talking about. Terrorists do not hate us because of Gitmo......Terrorists hate us because of Isreal....As long the US keep supporting Israel, the more hatre we will have. I love Israel and we cannot allow these Terrorists to be successful....Obama is wrong on Gitmo

    May 21, 2009 at 9:29 pm |
  35. Richard Larson

    David Gergen and our amazing President are very intelligent! The first Lady however,has beauty and Class to go with her IQ,No offense guys,just keep up the excellence!Our Great country needs you all!! GOD Bless You folks and thankyou!

    May 21, 2009 at 9:27 pm |
  36. Disheartened

    Obama's rhetoric is now sucking him into all directions...he has raised the hopes of too many suckers with his flamboyant and self-righteous rhetoric...The man is a master politician who can say anything he likes, but do exactly the opposite, and still continue to be the darling of the liberal left...He has NO (repeat NO) record of any achievement or reform, other than getting himself elected. It is flabergasting how gullible the American people can be that they elected him, and cannot see thru this slick "car-salesman". Unfortunately, he has the political strength in the congress, and hence before people realise their mistakes (buyers remorse?), he is pushing at great speed these changes down everyone's throats, well knowing that once implemented, it will be too hard to be rolled-back. Not allowing sufficient or reasonable time in discussing proposed reform and bills in the public is a totally UN-DEMOCRATIC AND UN-AMERICAN WAY... This can only mean one thing – Obama is scared that the public will not support his changes, hence he is keeping them out from public debate and using only congressional strength to push through....Nice transparency ! This is Slick and Dirty ! I am ashamed that soon we will become the laughing stock of the world...

    May 21, 2009 at 9:26 pm |
  37. carlos

    I agree whole heartedly – AND there is still some room to take on the idiotic believes of America's former VP who perhaps needs some "enhanced interrogation techniques of his own" to learn what he knew and when he knew it..

    May 21, 2009 at 9:22 pm |
  38. Beverly from NC

    I have always been impressed with political acumen and wise commentary on the issues facing our nation that David Gergen brings.

    I am so proud of President Obama and so excited with all he is working to accomplish. Regardless of the worthless and vicious attacks on him, President Obama keeps moving forward and is moving America forward.

    He has kept the support and trust of the American people in the process and we admire him for being able to handle so many difficult and diverse issues at once. He said on the campaign trail that the President should be able to handle more than one thing at a time and I agreed with him. Who knew how many issues President Obama really could handle at once? He is an amazing and remarkable leader. He is on his way to being one of our greatest Presidents ever.

    Republicans have learned nothing and have created great damage to their Party and to their future as a viable voice. Americans are sick of theiir constant negativity and are just tuning them out.

    President Obama has accomplished so much and all of it with no Republican support, votes, or input. It shows how irrelevant and unnecessary the Repubican Party has become. It shows we can do with a whole lot less Republicans in Congress come 2010. Just think how much more we could be doing for the benefit of America with less obstructionists in the way.

    Great job President Obama! You have exceeded our expectations in every way!

    May 21, 2009 at 9:21 pm |
  39. Aspen Professor

    Ah ... we have heard from good ole Cindy in Ga, the apparent standard bearer of the right-wing extremists running (or is that ruining) the Repubs.

    Obama has the Repubs running around in circles, totally befuddled, forming circles for shotgun practice, and the only people they are hitting is themselves. Go for it boys!

    Take notes for the Repubs Cindy. They might(?) be able to learn from an intelligent President; something we have not had for 8-years.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:20 pm |
  40. Lauren, New Mexico

    If anyone can handle all of the above mentioned issues, it's Obama! We have 100% confidence in his leadership abilities.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:17 pm |
  41. VJ in GA

    Cindy in GA must be fuming because all her life she thought republicans were right (no pun intended) and she suddenly finds that she has been left (again... no pun intended) to her devices trying to figure out what went wrong with the republican party that it exploded within and unable to contain its fall.

    May 21, 2009 at 9:13 pm |
  42. Annie Kate

    Obama's workload seems to be reflective of the times. There is a lot going on that the President needs to be involved with. I just hope with health care that if there are changes that those changes make a better system not a worse one.

    May 21, 2009 at 8:00 pm |
  43. Jim M

    Dave, I believe that the media viewed President Obama as if he were in a sports event and running the 1000 meter race; it's time to relaize that this man knows he is running in a marathon and the media to appreciate his stamina.

    May 21, 2009 at 7:53 pm |
  44. isabel

    Mr. Gergen,

    Excellent article. Very well written.

    When things go wrong, everyone will think bad forever. And when things are going well, everyone Thinks it will be wonderful forever. Not quite, the crisis is much more complex. There are signs of improvement, but there are also signs that the problems continue.

    May 21, 2009 at 5:45 pm |
  45. Brian Bollert

    If you want something done, give it to a busy man. With the support of a nation, miracles can happen.

    May 21, 2009 at 12:08 pm |
  46. Cindy

    WOW..once again another kiss up article to Obama. The man can handle...or juggle..as you say Gergen, so many things because on half of those things he isn't doing anything but backtracking on his promises about them and the other half he is just doing the least amount possible.

    Cindy..Ga.

    May 21, 2009 at 12:04 pm |
  47. Alex (NYC)

    Oh yeah, extreme challenges tonight. A very good reason to go home early. Thanks for the reminder. The clip already is promising. 🙂

    May 21, 2009 at 12:03 pm |
  48. Alex (NYC)

    Being worried about President Obama taking in too much is understandable because he actually is. However, I have faith in him that he will be able to handle them and very well so if Senate and Congress becomes bipartisan and free of lobbyists. Old habits are hard to die specially for hardened and seasoned politicians of ours. As for healthcare, I agree on national debate. My worry is the bill will be passed with a lot of loopholes, corporate bruhaha in the system that will again burden the American people. America has the resources to reform our healthcare. It is just a matter of agreeing on what is our priorities and what the American people want.

    May 21, 2009 at 12:01 pm |
  49. patnap

    I am appalled at the time given to an x-vp. He is doing more to bring about fear and give our enemies the idea that we are not safe. I would have appreciated his remarks if they were transparant during their administration. However, when one has taken us into a war we did not have to be in and lied about weapons of mass destruction, I give him no credibility. The people hated this country because of him and his administration. They do not hate us now thanks to President Obama. What closet does he live in? President Obama as enough to deal with and now this man would rather defend the fact that he broke the law than to allow our president to lead our country. If the people were satisfied with him, a republican would be president now.

    May 21, 2009 at 11:47 am |
  50. Arachnae

    "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."

    Isn't it also possible that the public has lived through the past 12-15 years under the CURRENT 'healthcare' system (if that's what you want to call it) and recognizes that pretty much any change has to be better than what we're stuck with now?

    May 21, 2009 at 11:36 am |
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