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Presidential historian Timothy Naftali on the election and how a bad president can be contained

Presidential historian Timothy Naftali
Westminster Town Hall Forum/Pablo Jones
Presidential historian Timothy Naftali shown prior to speaking at Thursday's Westminster Town Hall Forum.

Presidential historian Timothy Naftali gave a smart, honest talk about the election Thursday in Minneapolis at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. It might even be a salve to some of the spirits still raw from the events of last week. Naftali’s talk was smart because it was steeped in his background in the history of presidents past, and honest because he didn’t pretend to be able to tell us the future of presidents future, especially the president of the imminent future. (I’m pretty tired of those whose analyses suggest that they can tell us the future. Full disclosure here: I cannot tell you the future.)

Naftali quipped that when he accepted, months ago, the invitation to address the Westminster Town Hall right after the election, “I had no idea that my talk might be part of a wave of therapy sessions, big and small, taking place across this great country of ours in response to a huge political shock.”

Naftali didn’t specify whom he had supported in the election, although sentient listeners will know that it wasn’t Mr. Trump. He didn’t mock Trump, nor dwell on Trump’s incendiary tweets and statements that caused many Americans to see him as a vessel for racist, sexist, Islamophobic, nativist anger in the electorate.

Trump ran against internationalism in foreign/military policy, especially in the areas of trade and immigration, Naftali said. The embrace of free trade, pursued by all recent presidents from both parties, did indeed produce jobs, Naftali said, but more of the new jobs were in service industries and fewer in manufacturing, which had traditionally brought higher wages and better benefits for non-college-educated Americans.

What happened in Wisconsin

He analyzed exit polls and economic and demographic data from one of the key swing states, our neighbor, Wisconsin, a state that Trump carried even though polls had convinced the Clinton team that there was no need to campaign there in the late stages of the campaign. Naftali used Wisconsin as a leading example of the cracks in the so-called “Blue Wall” of states that Democrats have carried in most recent elections, several of which went red this year.

The most recent figure on the Wisconsin unemployment rate is 4.1 percent, based on September 2016 data, Naftali said. That’s down from 6.9 in January of 2013, when Barack Obama took office. That makes it hard to argue that Wisconsin is in rebellion against the status quo because of disappearing jobs. The same is roughly true nationally, by the way.

On the other hand, as is the case nationally, wealth inequality has grown steadily, not just during the Obama years but for decades. Try these numbers:

In 1928, at the height of the U.S. economic boom just before the crash which became the Great Depression, the richest one percent of Wisconsinites received 16.8 percent of all income.

By 1974, after the Depression, the New Deal, World War II and the post-war boom, Wisconsin had prospered greatly and the distribution of that new wealth had reached average workers. The rich were still plenty rich, but the share of income received by the wealthiest one percent had dropped to seven percent in 1974. That means that the great prosperity of the post-World War II era was being shared a lot more equitably with the middle and working classes.

But, over the last three-and-half-decades, the old normal of the rich getting richer has returned. From 1979 to 2011, Naftali said, the bottom 99 percent of Wisconsin households had neither gotten richer nor poorer, if you measure their incomes in inflation-adjusted dollars. But the country and the state prospered and all of the gains went to the top one percent, which saw a 104 percent increase in its share of real (meaning inflation-adjusted) income.

So it’s not that the middle and working classes have gotten poorer but that they have seen decades of income stagnation while all of the benefits of prosperity have flowed upwards.

“Tell me that’s not gonna have an effect on whether people feel comfortable,” Naftali said, “and on average whether people think things are working, and the change is good.”

Sticking with Wisconsin, and focusing on exit polls from last week, Naftali found many paradoxes. Yes, the majority of Wisconsin voters (54 percent of them) said that the biggest issue in the election was the economy. But, by 52-43, those who said that voted for Clinton.

Trump won among the smaller number of those Wisconsinites who said their biggest issue was either terrorism (Trump got 61 percent of those calling that the most important issue) or immigration (Trump 74 percent).

In fact, there have been no recent terrorist attacks in Wisconsin and, compared with many other states, relatively few new immigrants have moved there. But check out this breakdown of those who listed immigration as their top concern:

Of those who listed immigration as their top concern, 70 percent nonetheless favored a pathway to citizenship for those living in the United States illegally while only 26 percent said they should be deported.

Summarized Naftali: “So 74 percent of them voted for the guy who said we should deport the people, but only 26 percent of them want to deport the people. Are you confused? I am too.”

Another puzzle from the Badger State exit polls: About 50 percent of respondents said they were bothered by Trump’s treatment of women, and likewise 50 percent said they were bothered by Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server. But, of those who were bothered by Trump’s misogyny, 18 percent voted for him anyway. But of those bothered by Clinton’s email practices, only eight percent voted for her.

Containing an unstable man

Naftali didn’t say much about what portion of Trump’s agenda will become law. On the one hand, he said, not since 1933 (When FDR was inaugurated) have Republicans controlled the presidency, both houses of Congress and had five Republican-nominated justices on the Supreme Court (as will presumably be the case after Trump fills the Scalia vacancy). But he did note that, “What happens in the next period will be determined partly by how the congressional Republican Party goes along with the things that Donald Trump has espoused, many of which are not part of the Republican canon.”

Naftali avoided cheap shots at Trump’s character or qualifications. But, if you were looking for something that hinted about his view of a dangerous man in the Oval Office, you might have found it in his decision, apropos nothing specific, to talk about the up-close look he got at the inner workings of the Richard Nixon White House. Naftali, not because of any affinity for Nixon but because of his skills as a professional historian, was hired to work on the conversion of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, from a private to a public institution, which included access to all the tapes and other insider documents.

Said Naftali:

I didn’t particularly like Richard Nixon before I got the job. By the end of my four years in Yorba Linda, I came to really detest Richard Nixon.

The Nixon presidency had at its center an unstable man. An unstable man with very dark instincts. And those around him knew this. And they tried to construct a system to contain the darkness.

The system was set up by (Nixon’s White House chief of Staff) H.R. (Bob) Haldeman. But a system to control darkness is a system of men, I mean of individuals. So the containment depends on the goodness of the ones containing, not just the goodness of the one being contained.

And the people doing the containing in the Nixon period were not good men, for the most part. Bob Haldeman himself was a racist and an anti-Semite. And so, the extent to which he could contain the darkness depended on the extent to which he understood what was darkness. We know what came of that.

The reason the Nixon period wasn’t worse for this country is that there were other people outside the White House, good-government Republicans I would call them, who said ‘no.’

We lost one of them yesterday. Melvin Laird was secretary of defense, and he was a great and good man. In his biography, he tells a story of a late-night phone call from the president that would have had him bomb an airfield in Jordan where there were 184 passengers on airplanes that had been hijacked by the PFLP, a splinter group of the PLO.

Nixon was slurring his words. He didn’t have a drinking problem but he had a sleeping problem and he took pills to deal with his anxiety. So, it would take one or two cognacs or scotches and he wouldn’t be speaking clearly. He ordered the U.S. Air Force to bomb those planes, to show strength to the terrorists.

It would have killed 184 innocent people from around the world. And it was not a decision of the National Security Council. But Nixon was having an episode late at night. And Nixon was addicted to these late-night calls.

You can’t say ‘no’ to your commander-in-chief. What you can do is prevaricate. You can stall and hope that when he wakes up in the morning he will have forgotten the silly order that he gave in the middle of the night. And that’s what happened.

And it didn’t just happen once. There were other people who said no to implementing the ‘Enemies List,’ which Richard Nixon had ordered. Who said we should not politicize the IRS. And there were people who said ‘no’ to wiretapping. So that was a good thing. But it wasn’t enough. And the abuses piled up and ultimately Richard Nixon was the first president, so far, to have to resign.

What I am saying is that our system of government has flaws because of the strength of our executive branch. And what we have to hope for is the goodness of the people around the president as well as the goodness of the president himself.

Obama’s legacy

Sorry I’ve rattled on so long today, but I’ll add one of Naftali’s answers to one of the questions from the audience, a question about how he thinks the Obama presidency will be viewed in historical perspective. Naftali humbly began by apologizing for his hubris in commenting on the unknowable future of anything, including the future of Obama’s reputation. It may say something about the mood of the moment and/or the nature of the audience at Westminster, but his answer was interrupted several times by applause:

I think the presidency of Barack Obama will be viewed 25 or 30 years from now as one of the great presidencies of the modern era. (Huge ovation.) And a lot of people will get mad at me for this, but I don’t think Barack Obama failed us. I think we failed him. (Second ovation). And what I mean by that is that he challenged us to think of a post-racial country. And he challenged us to think about America’s role in the world. And he challenged us to think about the environment. And I know there are people thinking oh, this is just a big liberal speech (third ovation), so let me tell you what I mean. And let me show you that I can be non-partisan.

Syria’s a big, tough problem. And I suspect that, when national security historians get all the data, I hope to be here in 50 years when those documents are declassified, I think you’ll see that when ISIS took Mosul, it was a surprise. But the president was under a lot of pressure to put boots on the ground in Syria, which would have made Syria our problem. Which would have meant we would have had to reconstruct a country that has had a very sad history, with very weak institutions. That is not only a tough thing to do, it’s almost impossible in a short time frame. We’ve seen this problem in Iraq.

He didn’t. He took a lot of criticism for not being strong, for allowing America not to be at the head of it, for understanding that not every foreign policy problem, first of all, can be solved, many of them can only be managed, and that not every foreign policy problem should be solved by the United States alone. (Ovation.)

On climate change: The use of solar devices is up two thousand percent in our country. (Ovation.) As a result, carbon emissions are down. As a result, our economy is growing. Barack Obama inherited an economy that was as close to the Depression as we have come since World War II. He helped save the auto industry, which people in Michigan forgot a couple of Tuesdays ago.

The point being that although the recovery has been slower and has not been as strong as one would hope, the fact that there is a recovery, he deserves some credit for doesn’t he? (Ovation.) More importantly, there hasn’t been a scandal. (Ovation.) Can you imagine the pressure that this man was under, being the first African-American president? Can you imagine, how he knew, that if he messed up, it would not just hurt his legacy but undermine the chance of a future African-American man or woman to become president?

 No one has been under that kind of pressure. And he has escaped thus far a second-term scandal, which seems to be endemic to our presidency.  That’s a big deal. The fact that there’s no evidence, nor even a hint, even among his enemies and adversaries, that there’s any personal corruption, or indulgence. The self-discipline shown by Barack Obama is important not only to African Americans but as a reminder to us all that self-discipline is linked to success for a president. That will be remembered because that’s so unusual in our history.

So I would say, of the presidency of Barack Obama, that it’s appreciation — the American people’s appreciation — will only grow with time.

You watch, in a year or two, people are going to be saying, “Uch, I so wish Barack Obama was our president.”

And can I just add that the Westminster Town Hall Forum is a gift that just keeps on giving to thoughtful Minnesotans.

If you would like to listen to Naftali’s full hour-long presentation, including the Q and A, MPR has audio of it on this link. MPR and MinnPost were among the sponsors of the presentation.

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Comments (34)

A smart man

I especially liked Naftali's take on how Obama's presidency will be viewed down the road a few decades. As Taylor Swift has reminded us, haters gonna hate, and I wouldn't expect very many of those who like to call themselves "conservative" to abandon their 8-year vendetta, even after Obama has turned over the keys to the White House to his successor, but, while I can't say I'm happy with all the results, the fact that there are any results at all speaks volumes when Obama has been opposed at every single turn, on virtually every policy proposal, by frequently racist Republican obstruction. Naftali also pays some attention to what seems to have been forgotten by both the public and the media in general – Obama inherited economic catastrophe, the likes of which we hadn't seen in nearly a century, and was able to steer the ship of state around the icebergs in its path.

Wisconsin

I was born and raised in Wisconsin and still have strong friend and family ties to that state. Naftali's comments about the confusion of Wisconsin voters and the message they sent by electing trump and the rest of the Republican slate mirrors what I hear from family who supported Trump and Republicans. Much of what I've heard is fear of terrorism and "Sharia Law" being somehow enacted. Some people very close to me have become paranoic.

It breaks my heart to see what the Republican Party and Scott Walker have done in my home state. One of the things they did was pass a totally unnecessary voter ID law which the head of the Milwaukee elections commission said prevented many people from voting. Voter fraud is a fiction. Voter suppression is a real tactic that works to prevent the disenfranchised from being heard even in their small way of voting.

A very good review

I do find definite post election group sessions that so quickly deflect to an Obama Legacy to be presumptuous. He's not gone yet, as his current European tour reveals. He ends where he began.

Legacies

Discussing a President's legacy is a hollow exercise for at least the first 25-30 years after the President leaves office. It takes that much time for the full impact of a Presidency to be clear, and it takes that long for partisan fervor to die down.

Fully agree, RB

One "tell" of this is here, in response to a simple statement of ending where he began:
outside the country making what are essentially campaign speeches for some other day, for whatever
reason we cannot yet say. Is that also a kind of "hollow exercise"? Don't know...

He ends where he began?What

He ends where he began?

What did I miss during my nap ??? Stock market crash, banks going bankrupt, people losing their houses, hundreds of thousands being laid off each week, 2 unwinnable wars, debt out of control ??

Must have slept too long.

Slept too long?

I believe you are listing what was inherited from GWBush.

That's the point

Conditions are a lot better now than the hand he was dealt.

True

We must remember, however, that like all candidates, he "bought into the game."

I'm sure

it will be years,if not decades that we'll learn about all the good George W. Bush did for this nation after starting a war in Iraq on false pretenses, helping the hundred of thousands devastated by Hurricane Katrna and acting so decisively in preventing and dealing with the worst financial catastrophe since the Great Depression.

How to contain a "bad

How to contain a "bad President"?

First, there has to be a recognition that there is a "bad President". Second, there has to be a group of "good" people close to the President who are determined to thwart "bad". Third, this thwarting action has to be tolerated.

This is not inspiring confidence WRT the present situation.

And, it's becoming clearer that Trump does not want to reside in the White House. This removes him even further from dissenting and moderating opinion and places him more into the sole orbit of the closest advisers from the family/alt-right/cable-news-pundit world.

Great analysis by Naftali!

Those of us who followed what this youngish President did from the transition days in late 2008 to the eary2009 opening of his first term to his struggles to get any Republicans in Congress to confer and deal with him, on anything, for two full terms, are in full admiration of the calm, intelligent, informed and clear mission orientation and self-control he has shown. I have not always agreed with him, e.g., his under-funding of Social Security for a full year by using what would have been a gigantic regular contribution to the Social Security Trust Fund to get consumer money spreading through the economy--people at the bottom, with a tax cut, immediately spend it, unlike the rich, so I know why he did that.

I have been appalled at Congressional GOP leaders refusing to face and DEAL WITH the fact that this black man was our President, elected and re-elected. I am so glad, as an older white woman, to have had the chance, and the honor, of voting for him twice over! Such an elegant, eloquent man of good will and grace. A true American Class Act.

Class Act

I completely agree. "A true American Class Act." I miss him and his wonderful family already.

Many might say,

now followed by a "Crass Act." Yes?

The sequel

Yes.

Obama's Legacy

Obama may be a great person and a class act, but that doesn't necessarily make him a great President. You might want to consult the people of Syria and Libya, who were encouraged to start uprisings against their dictatorial governments, and once that was underway, when they asked for help, received meals ready to eat instead of the arms they needed to succeed.

Suggested reading

"America's War for the Greater Middle East," by Andrew Bacevich.

Intervening in a civil war didn't work so well for us in the '60s and '70s, and there aren't many who view our recent efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as especially successful, in part for similar reasons. While it's usually very good for armament manufacturers and their shareholders, warfare doesn't always serve our long-term national interests, and we've already demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan that we don't really know what we're doing in those local cultures once the strictly military part is take care of.

Naftali's analysis is more

Naftali's analysis is more accurate on Obama and Syria. Had the U.S. intervened with ground troops in Syria, we would have "owned" that war. Obama has chosen circumspection and caution and the long view over "make war immediately," and that's consistent with what we voted for: work for peace, not more war.

Good Decision

Obama resisted the early HRC push for arms shipments, likely resulting in ground troops to back them up when things got messy. One needs to review the statements of those days.

France and Britain also made the Obama decision much easier by officially voting to not join the fray this time.
That was also the first crack in PM Cameron's control of his Tory majority.

Part of the problem

was finding the 'good guys' to support.
Most of the rebels wanted to install theocratic Islamic states; not something that would be good for us.

We're getting a sense

We're now getting a sense of the men who will be containing President-elect Trump and finding little solace in Prof. Naftali's containment theory. Steve Bannon is an indicative choice. Now we have Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Representative Mike Pompeo as C.I.A. director and Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser. I would hazard that Mr. Bannon has approved all three of them. These are, more than likely, magnifying mirrors, not containment devices.

.... and magnifying what?

Mr. Trump has a set of beliefs that are solid as granite - that he's the smartest guy he knows, he doesn't need advice from experienced hands, what ever he decides is correct, because he's the source.

Mr. Trump also has a set of beliefs that literally change, at times, within a single news cycle. Certainly a bunch of changes over a period of years .... from choice concerning abortion, supporting Democrats more than Republicans, gay marriage, immigration (he married immigrant women after all)

so .... when you take a policy vessel anchored like a dandelion seed in the wind, and put it in front of a cast of characters known for gross racist views, derision for womens' equal rights, anti-semitism, anti-immigrant .... what will the seed do in that gale of wind?

Where to begin??

Under Obama the GOP has gained more Governorships, Senate seats, House seats and state houses than ever before, but he was a great President. Under Obama, with all 3 branches he passed the ACA which is caving in on itself, but he was a great President. The Arab Spring totally blew up on him but Obama was a great President. He ran the slowest economic recovery since WWII but he was a great President..... Wow I guess beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder..

With credit to John Grisham

Mr. Smith, I can help with this small example:

Please close you eyes and visualize a President who nearly triples the markets during his time in office, cuts unemployment in half, rescues the auto industry from the brink of collapse, avoids more boots on the ground foreign entanglements, cuts the uninsured rate to an all time low and over sees the fastest recovery from the 2008 fiscal crisis of all industrialized nations. Can you visualize those things? Now imagine the President was white.

Feel better now?

Yes, he is one of our greatest presidents

In spite of his adhering to the "US as indispensable nation" theory, not doing more to cut the "Defense" budget, stop the epidemic of rape in the military, deporting people -- YES, he is one of the greatest presidents we'll ever have.
None of our few great presidents has been perfect, only great.
And it is particularly hard to get things done when the leaders of the opposing party conspire to oppose you ON EVERYTHING, even things they might agree with you on.
It is perverse to blame Barack Obama for that or for the Arab Spring "blowing up on him" -- it's time for us to accept that the US government doesn't, can't, and ought not to try to control what happens in other countries.
It is particularly perverse to blame others' negative reaction to him, on him. A great deal if not all of it of it is from racism, which is not caused by the people who are hated but is created by the people who hate.
As for the Affordable Care Act, there is more work to do to rein in the insurance companies' greed, and eventually to eliminate them from the process entirely. The ACA's weaknesses are due to its mix of purposes: to make affordable healthcare available to more people, and the insurance companies drive to make as much money for themselves as they can.
Meanwhile, 22 million more people are covered, and since the election are signing up fast. All young people can stay on their parents' insurance until they're 26, if they need to, regardless of whether that's ACA- or employer-based insurance. No one can be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Insurance companies can't set annual or lifetime limits on what they'll pay. And being covered under the ACA has saved lives and will continue to, if Republican leaders don't take it away from us.

When you are in charge of the Nation

it is your job to identify (with inteligence) who is our foe and who is our friend in other parts of the world. You had many many experts saying the Arab Spring was Muslim Brotherhood driven and not to support it. That falls on Obama and his administration, period!! The ACA has been a disaster, our own Gov Dayton called it unaffordable... It was just a Govt takeover of 17% of our economy, check out how many of the people who are getting subsidies to pay their monthly premiums can not pay the $4,000-$7,500 dollar deductibles. What planet are folks on when they claim they are helping folks pay premiums (with tax payer dollars) who can't afford the deductibles?

I knew our history was being taught interestingly when my young nephew, just entered college, told me Jimmy Carter was a great President who sacrificed his Presidency to save the hostages in Iran lives. I told him he was the worst President of my lifetime and thank goodness Ronald Reagan beat him in 1980.. He then told me that Reagan was a poor President according to his teachers.... Class must of been taught by Naftali...

The ACA was not perfect

but hardly a disaster to the 20 million people who gained health care because of it.
And most people teaching history at institutions of higher learning go by the verifiable facts, not a political party's creation myths. As in any field there are exceptions, but they are few.
As has been pointed out on this list, in academia you score points and publications by proving other people wrong. Anyone making demonstrably false statements would be jumped on from all sides. Most historians are historians first and Democrats or Republicans second (if that).

Reagan is GREAT!

Ironically, this post crossed my feed this afternoon.

On this day in 1986

Oliver North starts feeding documents into the shredding machine.

"National Security Councilstaff memberOliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, begin shredding documents that would have exposed their participation in a range of illegal activities regarding the sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of the proceeds to a rebel Nicaraguan group. On November 25, North was fired but Hall continued to sneak documents to him by stuffing them in her skirt and boots. The Iran-Contra scandal, as it came to be known, became an embarrassment and a sticky legal problem for the Reagan administration."

Wasn't roughly 438 members of Reagan's administration convicted of corruption?

"...438 members...convicted of corruption...?"

Really do not know that answer.
Do you have a credible source I might examine?
Appreciate the help.

"Only" 138

The number I saw was 138 convictions, indictments, or criminal investigations. Not all of them were for corruption. A number of them were for things like lying to Congress or obstruction of justice. Many of the 138 were pardoned by President Bush I.

So yes, a real beacon of morality.

Ont the avenue between bribery and extortion....

The contacts, agreements and disagreements between Trump and those foreign governments who have Trump business interests within their borders cannot escape the color of being somewhere on the uncomfortable avenue that runs between bribery and extortion. What is given in exchange for favorable outcome ? What is demanded in exchange for a favorable outcome ? It is a two-way street, with either party potentially being the briber or the extorter. And the longer the blurring of private business and government business continues with Trump, the more tarnished the affairs of state become.

A couple of examples

...The US President-elect used his first meeting with a British politician since his shock White House victory to criticise the Scottish government for allowing the country to become over-run with wind farms.....
.....“But one thing Mr Trump kept returning to was the issue of wind farms. He is a complete Anglophile and also absolutely adores Scotland which he thinks is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. But he is dismayed that his beloved Scotland has become over-run with ugly wind farms which he believes are a blight on the stunning landscape.” ...
...Mr Trump has fought a long-running battle against a wind farm off the coast from his Aberdeenshire course, Trump International Golf Links, which he has previously called an act of “public vandalism”....
...Mr Trump announced plans for the £1billion golf resort in in 2006 and later claimed he had received assurances from then First Minister Jack McConnell that a proposed offshore wind farm in Aberdeen Bay, a mile from the fairways, would not go ahead.

http://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/734195/Donald-trump-Nigel-Farage-...

Then there is DC hotel, and then the Argentine project....

Why did Trump win?

Same thing again and again: How could Trump win? The problem is that polls never include a question about feeling unfairly insulted so people have to choose from given options while in fact they are just sick and tired of being called names by people from East and West coasts and the media… for not agreeing with those from East and West coasts and the media. In some cases that feeling of being insulted may be even subconscious… and yet affect the final vote which may explain some contradictions in voting vs. exit polls.

By the way, who should be credited with reducing the unemployment 3 percent in three years: Walker or Obama?

Evaluation

About evaluation of Obama’s presidency: To begin with, judging by ovations, no one got mad at Mr. Naftali for singing praise to Obama, which can hardly be called non-partisan. But I’ll try to address two of his points. First, Mr. Naftali said that Obama “challenged us to think of a post-racial country” and “we failed him.” OK, who are we? Coastal liberals by bringing race into every conversation or Rust Belt blue collar workers by refusing to admit their privilege? Of course, I do not even remember Obama challenging us to do that which should have sounded something like this: “I was elected a president of the United States and that means that there are no more barriers for African Americans and other minorities and your success depends entirely on your hard work.” And second, the world. Mr. Naftali talked about Syria but what about Libya, Iran, Yemen, China, Russia, North Korea… And of course, getting involved in Syria does not mean that we would have to reconstruct the country which was our greatest mistake in Iraq. But I agree, we have to give Obama credit for not getting involved in any scandals… but that says more about politics in general.