2008 Speaker Series: Jeff Greenfield
August 14, 2008
Minneapolis Portfolio Management Group (MPMG), a value-based money management firm with more than 750 million in assets under management, welcomed the firm’s clients, valued members of the brokerage community, and the investment community of the Twin Cities to the 3rd annual MPMG speaker series event featuring Mr. Jeff Greenfield on August 14th 2008. Just as MPMG has been dedicated to enriching the financial security of the firm’s clients, the purpose of this event is aimed at enriching the investment knowledge of the Twin Cities by bringing speakers of Mr. Greenfield’s prominence to the community to share their insights, knowledge and wisdom.
Below is a summary of the August, 2008 event. For more information about MPMG or the MPMG Speaker Series, please contact the firm at 612-334-2000.
Jeff Greenfield – Biography
CBS senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield has a long and storied career as a journalist. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and graduating from Yale Law School, he served as a speechwriter for Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He began a career in network TV news in 1979 as a media commentator for CBS News. Mr. Greenfield was a political and media commentator for ABC News for 15 years, appearing often on Nightline. From 1998 to 2007, he was a senior political analyst for CNN, and he returned to CBS in 2008.
Mr. Greenfield has won three Emmy Awards and also has an impressive resume for his work in print. He has authored several books, including Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow! about the unusual events surrounding the 2000 presidential election. His writings have also appeared in TIME Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Esquire.
Please note that the illustrations used on the following pages were prepared by MPMG to demonstrate the information presented by Mr. Greenfield.
“It is almost unimaginable when you think back to 2000,” says Jeff, “the big debate was what were we going to do with the surplus.” Problems today ranging from the nation’s heavy debt, future funding of Medicare and Social Security, the trade deficit, the energy crisis and increased foreign competition are issues that need to be addressed. “These problems are not insoluble, but you need the people you elect to actually govern.” Yet Jeff laments that on January 21, 2009, the day after the next president is inaugurated, CNN will likely have its first poll about the 2012 election.
America can deal with problems – if it gets serious
“One of the things that makes me an optimist is looking back at what things were like in June 1933,” says Jeff. That was a time when unemployment stood at 25%, there was violence across the country due to legal actions like farm foreclosures, and problems were brewing in Europe as Adolf Hitler rose to power. “The resolution at that time was people were in such bad shape, any sign of good news was greeted as real hope.”
A difference facing Americans now, according to Jeff, is “we’ve lived so well for so long, can we accept harder times?” One problem he sees is that our political system and media environment is ill prepared to put hard choices on the table. Jeff wonders if the next president, after receiving his first briefing about the extent of the problems at hand, will ask for a recount. “What we face will take people who govern us to do a whole lot of growing up.”
The International Front
Jeff says it is notable that former Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated recently that his presidential vote would go for the candidate who can best enable America to work with the world. He feels that comment is telling, because he seems to be saying that we’ve screwed things up internationally. “If you want to fight the bad guys,“ according to Jeff, “it has to be done internationally. If you want action on global warming, it has to be global. If China doesn’t do it (participate in the solution), that’s a problem.”
Jeff believes that both candidates appear to have a much more international focus than what he sees in the current administration.
Dealing with polarization
“Unless this new President makes some dramatic gesture that we are in this together, we will continue to have polarization,“ says Jeff. He sees this as a challenge, because the base in both parties is so angry and prepared to “denounce traitors,“ that it makes it hard for the head of the party to cross party lines. “But I hope whoever wins starts doing this.”
Jeff feels the media helps and hinders the process. “If you want to be informed and connected to the process of government and politics, you have never had more resources. The big shift in our media is that with the abundance, there is less common ground.” He points out that more Americans now tend to turn to media outlets that reinforce what they already believe. This adds to a polarized electorate.
A step forward, Jeff suggests, is for a President who can level with the people. He notes that in Winston Churchill’s famous speeches, before his inspiring calls to action, he started by putting all of the cards on the table. “He tells the people of Britain how badly things are going. He lays it out. Then when he tells them why they will win, they believe him because he took the bark off.” Will the next President have the ability to level with the American people and tell them about the serious work that lies ahead? “One can only hope,“ concludes Jeff.
The Political Landscape in 2008
A year of challenges
As the presidential election season heats up, Jeff offers no prediction as to who will win in November, but says one thing is clear – America faces challenges as big as it has had since World War II. “If you have any doubt about that, just look at the Olympic opening ceremonies (in Beijing).” It is a sign of just how much the world is catching up to the U.S.
He points out that this election occurs in a time when Americans are profoundly dissatisfied. 75% of the country felt that America was seriously off track, and this was in 2007 before the full impact of the subprime mortgage crisis began to be felt and before gasoline reached $4/gallon. (As the chart shows, the percentage of Americans who are dissatisfied with the way things are in the U.S. has risen dramatically in recent years.)
It is in this environment of profound discontent that this year’s elections take place, and Jeff says that is shaping much of what we’ll see in the campaign.
How we got here
Jeff says the match-up between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain is not one many would have predicted a year ago.
On the Republican side, he points out that McCain is a rarity for a party that tends to follow a very orderly nomination process. He says McCain is an “insurgent” in the GOP. One reason McCain succeeded was that his opponents managed to eliminate each other, leaving McCain standing. “A majority of Republicans did not want John McCain as their nominee even after he was nominated. On the other hand, they managed to nominate the one Republican who has a chance of winning.” Given the sour mood of the country, McCain’s maverick image gives him the ability to position himself as a candidate of change.
On the Democratic side, the primary battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton was all about change, says Jeff. And in his mind, that is what cost her the election. While the prospect of being the first woman president represented a new direction for the country, Jeff says it was difficult to project real change “when you are a spouse of the last Democratic president. And not if you voted for the war in Iraq.” In this case, Obama’s very lack of experience became an asset.
What happens in November?
While he says he is out of the prediction business, Jeff humorously points out that given historical trends, you could make the argument that neither candidate can get elected. After all, we have never elected:
- An African America
- A candidate in his 70s
- A northern Democrat (since 1960)
- A candidate from the Mountain time zone.
Given the public’s discontent and apparent desire for something different in terms of leadership in Washington, the environment works to Obama’s advantage. However, the race essentially comes down to voters’ perceptions of Obama. “Obama has not convinced people outside of his base of a comfort level.”
Jeff believes how Democrats handle the campaign will have a lot to do with the outcome and expects Republicans to attack Obama as they have attacked other Democratic candidates in the past – saying that Obama is “not like you.” Jeff believes only Bill Clinton (among recent Democratic standard bearers) understood that values questions often dwarf program proposals in a campaign. “The Obama campaign is determined to take their economic message and make it bigger than a five-point plan, that Obama understands people like you.”
Watch the debates
Jeff sees some similarity to this contest and the one involving Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980. During a period of strong discontent in the country at that time, the polls showed a very close race. The issue was whether Reagan could convince people he was up for the job. The two had only one debate, and Jeff says Reagan’s performance in that debate settled the issue. He won the election handily.
Similarly, he thinks debates will play an equally prominent role for Obama. Jeff suggests that the campaign will be 90% about Obama, “and if the country can settle in on Obama, it’s over.” If Obama succeeds in selling his message and himself to the country, Jeff believes there will be little McCain can do to counteract that. However, whether Obama can accomplish this remains an open question.
The hard part -after the election
Jeff recalls the Robert Redford movie “The Candidate,” in thinking about what life will be like for the winner of the election. In that movie, after winning his Senate election, Redford’s character asks his campaign manager, “What do we do now?” It will be a difficult environment for either candidate. If McCain wins, he is likely to be dealing with a Senate that has 55 or more Democrats, and a House of Representatives with a larger Democratic majority than exists today. If Obama wins, he will likely not have the luxury of a veto-proof Senate, and therefore any dramatic legislation is likely to be blocked.
This is an unfortunate situation, according to Jeff. Given that this is a time when many problems need to be addressed and the country would benefit from less politics and more governing from its elected leaders.