On a pinch-me perfect summer weekend, people hungry for fresh ideas and discussion bypassed the beach and gathered in East Hampton for the 3rd installment of the Hamptons Institute, a symposium put on by the Roosevelt Institute in collaboration with Guild Hall, the East End's premier cultural center. Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler worked with Guild Hall to create a smorgasbord of intellectual nourishment, with panels topics ranging from lighter fare, like how to produce a Broadway show, to the most thorny economic and political issues of the moment.
On Saturday, two panels delved into subjects fit to challenge the most pointy-headed of pundits.
The morning panel, “The Outlook for the Middle East,” was moderated by the brilliant Karen Greenberg, executive director of NYU's Center on Law and Security. Thought leaders Daniel Yergin, Jane Harman, and Hisham Melhem joined her in a discussion of the ever-changing situation in the Middle East.
Melhem, a Lebanese journalist, offered one of the weekend's most memorable (and sobering) lines: "The Arab Spring is morphing into a Hot Summer and a Dark Winter." He reminded us of the complexity of the region and the nuance required for discussion and framing of issues. For example, he suggested that the US would have been better served by framing the response to 9/11 as war on Al-Qaeda, rather than a war on terror or an implied battle against Islam. Melhem noted that politics informed by religious values is not necessarily bad. What you don't want, he observed, were theocracies. Melhem suggested that US should push societies in the Middle East to open the space for various parts to compete and debate, citing the examples of Egypt and Tunisia, whose relatively open societies permit robust public discussion in contrast to countries like Bahrain which currently make this untenable. He expressed grave concern that the Arab world is currently bereft of strong leaders with vision.
Former Congresswoman Jane Harman, who now runs a D.C.-based think thank, discussed whether the US government was prepared or caught off guard by the Arab Spring. She deplored America's "incredible ignorance about Arab societies" which pervades Congress, the administration, and the American public. Harman pointed out that "Yemen is ground zero for threats against us" and commented on the potential instability of a region where people are running out of oil and water, and increasingly driven to hopelessness. But she also put faith in the idea of a "counter-jihad" happening throughout the region -- a trend in which Muslims are thought to be rising up against Al-Qaeda, hard-lined types. Referring to Iran as the 'Big Enchilada" of the Middle East, she gave the view that economic sanctions are working, as evidenced by the fact that Ahmadinejad is in trouble. Harman further noted that there are good opportunities "to change Iranian policy without military intervention." She added that the "clock is ticking against Israel as a Jewish state," noting the decreasing number of reliable friends not only in the neighborhood but in Europe as well.
Author Dan Yergin discussed the role of the resources in the region, noting that oil and natural gas issues loom very large. He observed that the interplay between countries that have oil and natural gas and those that don't will become increasingly important, and warned that food prices in the region are also huge problem. "Anger is not just about lack of participation," said Yergin, "but economic hardship." He saw the future of the region as one in which ossified systems become dynamic. But he noted that economic challenges were of tremendous concern.
The afternoon panel, "Perspectives on the Obama Presidency" was moderated by Lynn Sherr and focused on questions that have been plaguing everyone: Has Obama been an effective president? Will he be reelected?
Author Bob Caro, a biographer of Lyndon Johnson, reminded the audience of how LBJ got things done, in contrast to Obama: He did whatever it took to get votes, from bribing to cajoling to threatening. Caro saw Obama's biggest challenge for reelection as the fact that there are really only 4 or 5 states in play -- the Rust Belt and Florida -- and that they happened to be areas especially hard hit by unemployment. He gave the view that Obama would have a "tremendous problem even being elected by default" because of those states.
The New Yorker's George Packer mused on the oft-cited difference between Obama the Candidate and Obama the President. Observing that Obama was not like Roosevelt or a figure who would fit the New Deal era, Packer wondered how he might have flourished in an earlier, progressive time when moralizing and lofty speeches were in vogue, and "when an appeal to civic-mindedness and political reform had a real audience in the middle classes". Packer observed that Obama is "a reasonable man speaking into a hurricane", characterizing the President as both behind and ahead of his time. Introducing a little-discussed theme, Packer made the point that Obama likely saw his job as managing an America in decline. On the challenges of reelection, Packer agreed that unemployment was a doozy, along with Obama's failure to connect to the public. "How many phrases can you remember from his presidency?" asked Packer. Nevertheless, Packer predicted that Obama will win in 2012 by default. He gave the opinion that health care was the best thing about Obama's first term.
Historian HW Brands was the most inclined to see the bright side of Obama's presidency, maintaining that he was doing about as well as any president could under the circumstances. But in discussing the hopes that Obama would usher in a New Deal, he observed that "it wasn't going to happen because things were bad, but not bad enough." Talking about the stimulus, he reminded the audience that in politics, "you don't get credit for what didn't happen". Brands was clear that Obama's would not be a transformational presidency. But he proposed that after the debt ceiling debate, Obama would be able to move from governing to campaigning, which is his forte. In Brands' view, the best thing this President did was to "focus the country on long-term issues like the deficit."
All this sounds like a lot to have on your plate on a summer Saturday. But judging from the lively conversations that bubbled up among attendees, this year's Hamptons Institute only whetted appetites for more.
Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, co-founder of Recessionwire, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.
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