Obama's Secret Meeting With Historians

The president held a dinner at the White House for leading presidential scholars.

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President Obama has found another way to break out of the White House "bubble"—holding private discussions with eminent historians who have studied the successes and failures of his predecessors. His goal is to better understand what has worked and what has failed in the past as he makes policy today.

Obama held a dinner at the White House residence with nine such scholars on June 30, and it turned out to be what one participant described as a "history book club, with the president as the inquisitor." Among those attending were Michael Beschloss, H. W. Brands, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Dallek, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Obama asked the guests to discuss the presidencies that they were most familiar with and to give him insights into what remains relevant to the problems of today.

At one point, the discussion turned to whether Obama was trying to do too much too fast and whether he might overload the political circuits of Congress. He is pushing for legislation to overhaul the healthcare system, the financial industry, and energy policy, and at the same time, he is injecting the federal government into broad areas of the economy in order to end the recession and strengthen the economy's fundamentals. At least one historian said it's wise to push for such a bold agenda because the country is eager for change.

There was a warning note. Several of the scholars pointed out that previous presidents have also tried to make fundamental change in the healthcare system and failed. But Obama seemed undeterred from his goal of getting a massive healthcare bill enacted this year.

Participants were impressed with Obama's intellectual curiosity and his willingness to listen. And he told aides afterward that he wants to hold more such dinners to broaden his perspective.

Other presidents have held discussions with outside experts, but such outreach seems particularly important to Obama. One of his biggest concerns is losing touch with the country because of the isolation imposed by the White House "bubble," and he is doing all he can to stay connected. Among his other techniques are holding town-hall meetings with citizens, reading 10 letters from Americans each day, and having as normal a family life as possible by spending lots of time with his wife, Michelle, and two daughters, Malia and Sasha.