Panel Nerds: What Everyone’s Talking About? The Obama Experts


Who: Jonathan Alter, David Remnick, moderated by Abigail Pogrebin
What: What Everyone’s Talking About: The Obama Experts
: The JCC in Manhattan
When: October 13, 2010
: Up

Much has been written about Obama. And, yet, there’s more to be said. Both Jonathan Alter and David Remnick published books about the president this past spring – Alter’s The Promise and Remnick’s The Bridge – that explore how the president got to where he is. The difference between the books, however, the authors say, is that Remnick takes you up to the moment Obama wins and Alter takes the story from there. What’s amazing about it, though, is that Remnick revealed his project was originally also intended to be titled The Promise,” before he got word that Alter had staked a claim to the name. Neither of them wished to step on the other’s toes. After all, there was room enough in the political world and book economy to see both biographies flourish.

The two men approached their books quite differently. Remnick focused on Obama’s Chicago years and his childhood, interviewing anyone who knew the man before he became a national name. Remnick said he had a relatively easy time lining up interviews because so much time had passed. Besides, these were everyday people who had no reason to deny access. Alter, on the other hand, wrote about the president in office and relied more heavily on being able to speak to medium- to high-level officials, on the record. Alter said that he got people to open up to him once he began to write about the “history” rather than “real time.” If he focused his interviews on what happened six weeks earlier, he found, people were more willing to share details about what was said inside closed-door meetings. It was also a short enough period of distance from the actual events that the interview subjects still recalled what happened.

Getting the president to open up was a different story. Each of the writers got around an hour total to ask Obama questions for their respective books. Neither of them found him very forthcoming. They each, separately, came to similar conclusions about the president’s childhood and demeanor. He’s deliberate, disciplined, cool, and detached, they said. What perplexes them, though, is how he rose up and became known as a communicator yet struggles in those areas today. Remnick pointed to his Oval Office Iraq speech, for one, as a “blown opportunity.” Alter reminded the audience that it was Obama’s speech on race – something he’d likely been preparing for his entire life, Alter said – that propelled him ahead in the 2008 campaign. Obama’s gift, however, hasn’t been nearly as effective during his presidency, Remnick reminded.

Obama campaigned around fixing Washington, but Alter said that the people he’s appointed are those who know how to push ahead bills under the current system. He dropped the prospect of change in that arena. Despite this criticism against him, Obama believes he will win in 2012, according to Alter. He trusts that ultimately the American people will trust him to finish the job.

What They Said
“He’s the least crazy president we’ve had in a century. He’s probably the least crazy person I know.”
– David Remnick shares his thoughts on the president’s psyche

“There’s literally no overlap to our books at all, which was a great relief to me.”
– Jonathan Alter gets humble when discussing Remnick’s book

“It’s very rare I get ‘out-Jewed.'”
David Remnick jokes about the way Alter pandered to the JCC crowd with several yiddish words and Jewish references

“When he talks, nothing sticks.”
Jonathan Alter advises the president to begin speaking in talking points so Americans can better retain what he has said

What We Thought

  • Pogrebin did a nice job steering the conversation in the right direction and then taking a backseat. She asked big enough questions that both panelists could field every question and respond to the points made by the other.
  • We’d seen Alter on stage twice before (and covered once) and remain impressed with his vast knowledge. More than that, as a veteran of these types of panels, Alter knows when to give explanations and background information to the audience. We definitely needed his instruction at times and appreciated the additional, relevant context he offered.
  • We liked Remnick’s point about how Glenn Becks have always existed to create “hysteria,” only now their words last longer. The way technology plays into politics is a growing worry.

Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like…Non-Listeners
The five people who asked questions made it clear why they were there. Even after Pogrebin requested that questions be asked, and for audience members not to share their opinions, one person lectured the panel about why Obama has failed thus far. Another question was fairly straight-forward but uninteresting: “Does the president read Tom Friedman?”As a result, the other three questions – all predictably foreign-policy-directed: Iran, Israel, security threats – were welcomed with open arms.

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