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All Things Considered

Nov 18, 2012 BY NPR Staff

Debt Talks A 'Roosevelt Moment' For Obama

President Obama leaves the White House Saturday for a trip to Southeast Asia.
President Obama leaves the White House Saturday for a trip to Southeast Asia.

President Obama is now about to enter into a series of difficult talks on the so-called debt ceiling and the impending fiscal cliff. Lawmakers have until Dec. 31 to come up with a deal to prevent $700 billion from being cut from the federal budget.

If those cuts happens, it will almost guarantee a recession and no doubt set the tone for the beginning of the president's second term.

Presumably, Obama is looking at these talks as a chance to rewrite history after the debacle of the debt ceiling talks in 2011. NPR's Mara Liasson tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that the president is bringing what he learned from those failed talks back to the table.

"He's starting out with some clear bottom lines [and] he's not making concessions upfront the way he did with the stimulus package," Liasson says. "I think the president is getting a do-over, and also he's in a stronger position now."

A Model For Legacy

The talks over the fiscal cliff will become part of the president's legacy, which every president starts to think about.

In fact, each year during his first three years in office, Obama held a small dinner at the White House. At these dinners were noted presidential historians, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro, Michael Beschloss and Robert Dallek.

But the conversations weren't just discussions for history's sake, says Jodi Kantor, who reported on the dinners for The New York Times. The goal was to give the president some historical perspective on his predecessors.

"They weren't idol conversations," Kantor tells Raz. "The president wanted their help with strategy; he wanted to learn from [his] predecessors' mistakes and triumphs."

For the most part, they focused on the transformative presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. During the third dinner, however, historian H.W. Brands suggested to the president that perhaps Theodore Roosevelt might be a better model for his presidency.

"The difference between Lincoln and [Franklin D. Roosevelt] on one hand and Theodore Roosevelt on the other hand was that Roosevelt was able to push the country and the government in a progressive direction," Brands tells Raz, "but at the same time to preside over 7 1/2 years of peace and prosperity."

Roosevelt also dealt with a hostile Congress, says The Times' Kantor, and even though he was Republican, he supported universal health care.

Channeling Roosevelt

The historians were also honest with the president, and told him that there was one quality they wish he shared more of with Teddy Roosevelt.

"What they told him was that he was not doing a good enough job forging a day-to-day relationship with the American people," Kantor says.

The president took that advice to heart, and a few months later, when laying out his vision for a second term in Osawatomie, Kan., the president quoted from Teddy Roosevelt:

"Our country ... means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy, the triumph of popular government, and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.

"The fundamental rule in our national life – the rule which underlies all others – is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together."

The upcoming discussions of how to solve the fiscal cliff might be another opportunity for the president to channel some of that inner Roosevelt. As he looks to negotiate with basically the same people in Congress as he did in 2011, what's different this time is the legacy he, and those in the debt talks, will leave behind.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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