Barack Obama’s confidence and cool-headedness are partly why he was elected president of the United States. But if that confidence curdles into arrogance, it will be his downfall.
That was one of the messages delivered by an all-star panel of print and broadcast journalists at “The Changing of the Guard in Washington: What to Expect,” held on Jan. 15 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.
Judy Woodruff, senior correspondent for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, headlined the evening with a lecture on domestic and international issues facing Obama. She then joined the panel discussion hosted by Bill Baker, Ph.D., Claudio Acquaviva S.J. Chair and Journalist in Residence at Fordham.
The panel featured Neil Shapiro, former president of NBC News and current president of Thirteen/WNET; Jodi Kantor, Washington correspondent for The New York Times; and Caren Bohan, political correspondent for Reuters’ Washington bureau.
In her opening remarks, Woodruff noted that it was customary for journalists to be jaded about politicians who talk about change, but that there is a tangible feeling of excitement in the nation’s capitol. That is fortunate, she added, because the United States has not faced such an array of grave challenges in 75 years.
“Even the smartest experts worry about the fragility of our financial institutions,” she said. “Who would have thought that under a Republican administration and a Republican central banker, that the federal government would be bailing out Wall Street?”
Obama’s supremely self-assured nature was the subject of much discussion. Woodruff said that confidence will serve him well when working with his cabinet of political and intellectual heavyweights.
“To be sure, there’s a danger of hubris, or too much self-confidence,” she added. “As David Halberstam so greatly chronicled years ago, [it is]the arrogance of the best and the brightest. But the antidote to that is not the worst and the dumbest.”
|from l to r: Jodi Kantor, Caren Bohan, Neil Shapiro and Judy Woodruff
Photo By Michael Dames
Kantor, who has covered Obama since early 2007, talked about how she was assigned to poke holes in his official biography.
Even when he was a student at Harvard Law in the early 1990s, fellow students produced a parody of him talking about his background—proof that he has long been using his life story to connect with people politically. He also has an almost relentless appetite to win over people who don’t share his views, she said.
“If Obama has a flaw, and this is something that’s tripped him up a couple of times in life, he really thinks he can win everybody over,” she said. “He has a lot of confidence that he can meet somebody from a totally different culture, who he agrees on nothing about, and still form a connection to that person.”
Shapiro, who helped launch the nightly international newscast Worldfocus, said he was struck by how pragmatic Obama is. As a presidential candidate, his initial support for public financing vanished when he realized he had a 7-1 advantage over John McCain.
This might be helpful when trying to predict how he will deal with challenges abroad, which have become tightly entwined with economic and domestic policy. In addition to China, Shapiro predicted that Japan will play a huge part in the United States’ fortunes.
“Japan is the world’s second-largest economy, and where, for a time, we’ve basically ignored our issues about Japan. Now I think they’re going to be a huge force. Are they helping us and buying our debt, or not?” Shapiro said.
“As the world gets smaller—both in terms of communication and in the terms of economics—domestic politics, economic politics and international politics converge,” he said. “That will put even more pressure on the president.”
The panel was the inaugural event in the Phi Beta Kappa Lecture Series and was sponsored by the Graduate School of Education at Fordham. At the conclusion, both Baker and Woodruff were made honorary members of Phi Beta Kappa. They were honored for their dedication to furthering intellectual discourse in the public sphere.