Standing outside the gala tent erected on the lawn directly in front of the Baker Institute’s building at Rice, students craned to see inside the tinted black windows of the vehicles depositing guests for the Baker Institute for Public Policy’s 25th Anniversary Gala last night.
“Do you think that’s him? Oh, I wish we could go too," one said. "They gave what, maybe $10,000 once? I’m giving $60,000 a year for four years. Shouldn’t I get a ticket?”
“It’s awesome just to breathe the same air as him,” another student answered. “He’s here!”
By the time President Barack Obama rolled up to the Baker Institute for the gala, the students had already cleared out, opting to watch his talk via livestream since tickets were reserved for university donors and other bigwigs.
The show was supposed to be a celebration of the think tank's years of work, and of its namesake, but Obama was easily, and obviously the real star. It seems that 44 also chose to use his appearance in Houston to make a point. Upon arrival here, he'd stopped off at Republican President George H.W. Bush’s house to say hello, reminding everyone that it’s still possible to disagree on politics and be friends. Hours later, he walked into an enormous “gala tent” and sat down for a moderated discussion with Bush’s former chief of staff and Secretary of State, James Baker III, for a “reaching across the aisles” bipartisan discussion.
And Baker and Obama pulled it off, which was all the more impressive considering the sheer amount of vitriol and discord between Republicans and Democrats these days. Under the gaze of more than 1,000 attendees clad in tuxedos and formal gowns, and with Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jon Meacham as moderator, the pair had an actual conversation, exploring how we got to where we are now as a nation.
“In 1981, your news cycle was still governed by the stories that were going to be filed by the AP, Washington Post, maybe New York Times, and the three broadcast stations,” Obama said, noting that back then, while people didn’t always agree, they were working off of the same basic facts. “By the time I take office, what you increasingly have is a media environment in which, if you are a Fox News viewer, you have an entirely different reality than if you are a New York Times reader.”
How did this happen? Obama and Baker explored a variety of causes, everything from gerrymandering, to the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, to politicians being permanently in re-election mode, to the overlooked divide in opportunity between those living in rural and urban parts of the country, to myriad other factors that have led to this moment.
Obama admitted that he and others had missed the frustration and anger that had started brewing in parts of the country being left behind as factories closed and jobs moved out to other countries. “You start getting politics that's based on, That person’s not like me, and it must be their fault. And you start getting a politics based on a nationalism that’s not pride in country but hatred for somebody on the other side of the border,” he said.
In other words, even though nobody directly mentioned President Donald Trump, the discussion was all about him and what his administration is doing to the country. (“He’s Voldemort,” Meacham declared at one point. “I won’t say his name.”)
They also examined the effect Trump’s administration is having on global politics. Obama noted that when he himself took office, he was surprised to find what a key role the United States plays in world affairs. “If there’s a problem around the world, people do not call Moscow,” he said. “They do not call Beijing. They call Washington. Even our adversaries expect us to solve problems and expect us to keep things running.”
He and Baker both warned that the current dysfunction in Washington, D.C.—particularly the way civil servants at the State Department have continually had their legs kicked out from under them since Trump took office—can have a massive ripple effect. “That doesn’t just weaken our influence,” Obama noted. “It provides opportunities for disorder to start ramping up all around the world and ultimately makes us less safe and makes us less prosperous.”
Baker also expressed frustration with how Trump has railed against the historic U.S. alliances that were constructed in the wake of World War II and that ultimately helped us win the Cold War. “This president is right in one respect for sure,” Baker said, in a moment that was the closest anyone got to saying the president's name the entire evening. “NATO needs to, our European allies need to pay their way, what they’ve agreed to pay, and we shouldn’t be required forever to pick up the tab on that. But these institutions make America stronger, and we ought not to be running them down.”
Over the course of the talk, the duo didn’t agree on everything, but they continually found common ground. When Meacham asked what each was most proud of accomplishing during his time in Washington, Baker was quick to point to the fact that he served three presidents (he worked for the Nixon Administration and then was Chief of Staff and Treasury Secretary for President Ronald Reagan before serving George H.W. Bush) while spending more than a decade in D.C. and never once being indicted.
Obama seconded that one. “Not only did I not get indicted, nobody in my administration got indicted," Obama said. "By the way, it was the only administration in modern history that that can be said about. In fact, nobody came close to being indicted, probably because the people who joined us were there for the right reasons."
As the conversation drew to a close, Obama jumped back to what it was like when he first entered the Oval Office after winning in 2008. “There’s a reverence there for that office that is independent of you, and if you don’t feel that you shouldn’t be there. Because a lot of fights, a lot of sacrifices, a lot of bloodshed is represented in that office,” Obama said. “Not just soldiers in Iwo Jima but maids in Selma and workers in coal mines and farmers in the Dust Bowl. And you’re carrying that vessel.”
Obama said he never lost that feeling, and that it was one he knew Reagan, H.W., George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all shared. He stopped there.