Ronald Reagan's PR Director: 'Our Political System Is Basically Dysfunctional'

David Gergen, 70, media expert and communications director for former US President Ronald Reagan, fears that even a second term won't help current President Barack Obama overcome the deep divides in Washington. The next few years are going to be tough, he says.

Barack Obama has not been the president many had hoped for. Zoom
AFP

Barack Obama has not been the president many had hoped for.

SPIEGEL: In opinion polls, American citizens' confidence in business leaders, politicians and the media has declined dramatically. Is there any institution Americans still trust?

Gergen: We have entered new territory. There are many examples of when our politics have been extremely polarized and contentious, such as during our Civil War, but there have been very few instances in which we have also been paralyzed. I worked for Richard Nixon, one of the most controversial presidents ever. But even in that presidency, I found that generally people could find common ground.

SPIEGEL: And that feeling has evaporated in Washington?

Gergen: We had a brief moment after 9/11, when people came together and united behind President George W. Bush, and he got bipartisan support to go into Afghanistan. But that moment did not last long. Right now our politics are even hurting our economics. When we saw the big fight in Congress over the debt ceiling back in August 2011, our consumer confidence took one of the biggest drops in modern times. That has slowed down our economic recovery tremendously.

SPIEGEL: Has the economic crisis not been the primary factor for the current polarization? Americans are feeling anxious and insecure.

Gergen: Certainly the recent economic crisis has contributed, but it is worth remembering that polarization began to deepen in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when we were creating 20 million jobs a decade. Cultural factors have also been at play, and as someone in the media, I confess that the media has also played a role. I have had senator after senator tell me that they get invited to go on a talk show and be seated next to someone from the other party. Then the producer calls to discuss the segment and if you tell them you're going to have moderate things to say, you want to work with the other side, the next day you get a call saying, "Sorry, we're going to get somebody else."

SPIEGEL: So you can't be a successful politician in America unless you are willing to polarize?

Gergen: It is very hard today for moderates to win and to be heard in Washington. That is why they are dropping out.

SPIEGEL: On the other hand, Americans always say they are yearning for moderation in politics. How does that fit together?

Gergen: The activists on both ends of the spectrum are remaining highly engaged. They drive a lot of the conversation. They care deeply and they are committed. The moderates would like to see a middle in US politics, but many seem unwilling to spend the time making it possible.

SPIEGEL: America has a silent moderate majority?

Gergen: Exactly, and this majority has been eclipsed by the noisy fringes. Look at the media landscape: Not long ago CNN was the most watched of the cable news channels, but in this age of polarization, its efforts to remain unbiased have contributed to a drop in ratings. Fox News on the right, and to a lesser extent, MSNBC on the left, have moved up. We are also seeing greater polarization in our newspaper world.

SPIEGEL: In Europe, a very partisan media culture has existed for a long time. Why has a similar development led to such a decline of the public discourse in America?

Gergen: Because people here only read opinions that reinforce their own views. If you do not listen to opposing opinions, what actually happens is you begin to see reality through different lenses. The right in America now thinks that President Barack Obama is very anti-business, while the left thinks he has coddled business. It is the same reality, but people see it differently. Within the parties, of course, there are also different understandings of reality -- the Tea Party versus moderate Republicans, for example.

SPIEGEL: Speaking of reality, when you worked as communications director for President Ronald Reagan, one of your revolutionary ideas was to "spin" a reality every single day -- a reality shaped by Reagan's message. So, you opened Pandora's Box and are part of the problem that led to America's current polarization.

Gergen: I do have some regrets that I contributed to "spin," but I don't think I contributed to polarization. For decades, I have opposed excessive partisanship. On spin, please understand that when Reagan was elected president, we had had a succession of presidents who had left office not having achieved what they wanted. John F. Kennedy was killed. Lyndon B. Johnson was forced out of office. Richard Nixon was forced out by scandal. Gerald Ford was forced out of office. Jimmy Carter was forced out of office. By 1980, there was a real sense that a president could not govern and that America had lost its way.

SPIEGEL: And staging a daily media message was supposed change that?

Gergen: We thought that the presidents had lost their capacity to persuade because they had increasingly lost the capacity to govern through television. Hence, we tried to get the president's message out aggressively every day, to reach the broad public. That was what was called "spin" in those days.

SPIEGEL: Which led to even more polarization.

Gergen: Frankly, I thought what we did in the Reagan days was justified -- certainly much of the country thought we had a leader in the White House again. But in years since, the "spin" has gotten excessive in US politics, and I regret that we have gotten this far down the road.

SPIEGEL: As a former spin master, do you feel responsible for candidates like Sarah Palin -- all style, no substance?

Gergen: Me personally? Not at all.

SPIEGEL: But how could it happen that a figure like Palin became so important in American politics, a situation that spawned other silly candidates like Donald Trump or Herman Cain this election cycle?

Gergen: Please don't over-interpret American politics. She was very popular for a while, but her influence has diminished as other figures have emerged.

SPIEGEL: The US media still reports every single statement of hers.

Gergen: Because she is interesting. But I fundamentally reject the idea that my influence on politics had anything to do with Palin. That's not what I worked on for 40 years, nor what I have stood for since. And by the way, you are underestimating Reagan -- he was a man of substance as well as style, just as John Kennedy was.

SPIEGEL: Were you surprised that Obama, who was a very gifted orator in the campaign, hasn't become a better communicator in office?

Gergen: Some of his speeches as a candidate, such as his Philadelphia speech on race, were really inspirational. I voted for Obama because l hoped that an African American coming to that job could really help to transform our culture. And the surprise for me started with his acceptance speech. It did not have the uplift that I expected. That was very disappointing. Unfortunately, that trend has continued. Obama was also overexposed in his first years in office. Recently, he has begun picking his appearances more carefully, and his popularity ratings have since improved.

SPIEGEL: Americans liked to adore their business leaders, the "Superstar CEOs." But they also have fallen out of favor after the financial crisis.

Gergen: The problem is even broader. There was such a thing as the American establishment before. People looked up to its members and they followed them. Presidents of universities had large followings. People who were leaders of religious faiths would have a large following. But there are not very many people who have that anymore. This is the first time I can remember we've had a collapse in the leadership of both business and politics, and it's left the country adrift.

SPIEGEL: With the exception of the military?

Gergen: Yes, because they're very professional and they get the job done. I also believe that the younger generation -- those in their 20s and 30s today -- have great promise for the country. They are idealistic, volunteer in greater numbers and hate the current polarization. Many of our best new leaders have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, eager to rebuild America.

SPIEGEL: Speaking of the younger generation, how does the explosion of social media affect politics?

Gergen: It is a double-edged sword. Clearly, social media made a huge difference in the Arab Spring. Politicians in Washington also occasionally had to back down on something because there was an uproar in social media. But Malcolm Gladwell, from The New Yorker, has remarked that social media can get people to show up to vote, but you couldn't run a civil rights revolution through it. Social media is not good at getting people to do hard things, things that take a sustained effort.

SPIEGEL: So it's good for campaigning, but not for governing?

Gergen: Obama used social media and the Internet extraordinarily well to mobilize during the campaign, but he's had a very difficult time using it for governing. I thought coming out of the campaign: "He's going to have an army out there of young people. Anytime he brings up an issue, they're going to deluge the Congress." It did not happen.

SPIEGEL: You, a Nixon and Reagan man, were brought into the Clinton White House to make the trains run on time when his White House was about to hit rock bottom in his first term.

Gergen: I'm not sure about making trains run on time. I had known President Clinton for a long time and he asked me to help. But he is the one who deserves all the credit for the way he regained his balance.

SPIEGEL: Why didn't that happen in the Obama White House? After early setbacks, why didn't his team bring in somebody with a slightly different background to reach out to moderates?

Gergen: Barack Obama is a very smart man. He has many gifts. Bill Clinton is a better politician. Clinton believed right from the beginning that, in order to win the presidency, he had to put together a team that came from many different parts of the political spectrum. Obama has very good people, but they're almost all from the same group, and they all came from Chicago. I had this conversation with him and said, "Keep your current people; they are obviously good. But it would also be helpful if you enlarged your inner circle, bringing in people with different perspectives."

SPIEGEL: What was Obama's response?

Gergen: He brought in a strong businessman, Bill Daley, to help him as chief of staff, but Daley was essentially marginalized right from the beginning. He quit after less than a year on the job.

SPIEGEL: Why does Obama generate so much hatred in the country?

Gergen: I would like to believe it's not race, but I'm sure that's an element. But, after all, we voted for an African American. If there was so much racial hatred, he never would have gotten there. There is a quality about Obama that he sometimes seems to be lecturing you, and people resent that.

SPIEGEL: He didn't show that trait during the campaign, did he?

Gergen: No. He changed when he became president. He has another problem: He ran a campaign in which everybody could see in him what they wanted to see. I'm a moderate centrist. I thought that he would be a moderate centrist. The left thought he was going to be one of them. There are many different people who invested their hopes in Obama, and when he had to start making choices, people discovered he's not who they thought he was, and they got upset about that.

SPIEGEL: Has he actually made enough of an effort to reconcile the political parties in Washington?

Gergen: He has tried. But he is more of an introvert than I thought he was. He doesn't feel he needs a lot more friends, and I don't think he has tried to build relationships in Washington, the way Clinton or Reagan tried.

SPIEGEL: But would the conservatives have been receptive?

Gergen: I think it would have made sense if he had reached out more to the Republican leaders in Congress. In fairness to the president, though, there were a lot of Republicans who wanted to destroy him right from the beginning.

SPIEGEL: Is there any chance for a "restart" in Washington if Obama gets reelected?

Gergen: One always hopes, but history shows that almost every second term has been weaker than the first one in terms of effectiveness domestically. You can often get a lot of things done overseas in a second term but not much at home. The next few years are going to be really rough. I think our political system is basically dysfunctional.

SPIEGEL: To break the gridlock in US politics, what qualities would a leader need?

Gergen: I don't think any single individual can do it now. We need a new generation to help us. It might be helpful if we had a woman in charge, because the press would be more respectful for a while.

SPIEGEL: Hillary Clinton?

Gergen: I think if Clinton were on the ticket today, she'd probably beat everybody handily, including Obama and Romney.

SPIEGEL: But she has ruled out another run. So America is stuck for now?

Gergen: I am more optimistic in the middle and long run, when a new generation of leaders can come into place. But the next three to five years will be problematic, no matter who is elected in November. I thought Barack Obama was the first person in a long time who could break through, and so his failure has been a source of enormous disappointment. The hopes of many Americans, particularly the young ones, were broken.

SPIEGEL: How can their broken hearts be mended?

Gergen: It may take a different kind of leader, a less charismatic one. A colleague of mine at Harvard Business School, Bill George, argues that in the business world, one outcome of the latest crisis is the return of more responsible, though less glamorous CEO's.

SPIEGEL: But would a quiet political leader not be mocked by the media for being dull or stiff?

Gergen: I am not sure. What I know is that there is a lot of respect among Americans who do business in China for the competency and efficiency of the leadership there.

SPIEGEL: Are you serious? Communist China is supposed to serve as a leadership model for the oldest democracy on the planet?

Gergen: It is hard to believe, I know. But Chinese leaders are currently perceived like US generals -- they are competent and they get things done. Americans are aware, of course, that China has internal problems and Americans worry about an expansive China. But we see them building a modern infrastructure -- and wonder why we aren't investing more in the future ourselves.

Interview conducted by Marc Hujer and Gregor Peter Schmitz

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