Episode 44, with guests James Fallows of The Atlantic and Car Czar Steve Rattner

James Fallows and Steve Rattner are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton
Original Air Date: February 11, 2012 on SiriusXM Satellite Radio “POTUS” Channel 124
Listen to the show by clicking on the bar above.
Show also available for download on Apple iTunes by clicking here

First, a quick update from last week’s show, when our friend Jeff Berman, General Manager of Digital for the National Football League, called in from Indianapolis on the eve the inaugural broadcast of his first Super Bowl ad.  The spot was a promotion for NFL.com’s “The Perfect Challenge,” an easy-to-play fantasy game that could yield the best player a grand prize of $1 million next season.

When Jeff screened a rough cut of the ad for me a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, I confess that the soundtrack with its repetitive cadence of “You could win a million bucks” was grating, and the images of football fan dudes playing nouveau Beverly Hillbillies made me pine for artistic sensibilities of Buddy Ebsen. But by the third airing of the spot during Super Bowl XLVI, I found myself singing the song aloud as I swept up Doritos crumbs following the N.E. Patriots’ heartbreaking loss to the New York Giants.


The spot seemed to work with others, too, as Brian Stelter reported for the New York Times following a conversation with Jeff. According to Berman, 1.7 million cell phone owners, or just under 2% of the entire Super Bowl watching audience, sent a text to the NFL to begin engaging with “The Perfect Challenge,” an astounding response rate.

Congrats, Berman, and thanks for the chance to play, and “win a million bucks.” I’m no fair weather fan. I’m going to use Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski every game next year in “The Perfect Challenge.” They won’t let me down…again.

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Speaking of Super Bowl XLVI, by far the biggest buzz from the ads during the game was the “Imported from Detroit” two-minute drill from Chrysler featuring Clint Eastwood, a $14 million spot called “Halftime in America” that didn’t mentioned the brand name of the car maker that bought the time until the final few frames. No matter. All it took was Karl Rove piping up that he thought it was a wet kiss to the Obama Administration to send the spot viral and make it fodder for water cooler conversation all week long. That’s the definition of a successful Super Bowl ad.


Who better to give Adam Belmar and me, and our listeners, a reality check on the current status of the U.S. auto industry than Steve Rattner? Steve began his career as a New York Times reporter, then transformed himself into an investment banker for Lazard. Leaving i-banking for private equity, he helped to found the Quadrangle Group and became increasingly involved in helping to shape the fortunes of Democratic candidates for public office.

When President Obama took office, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner looked to Rattner to assemble Team Auto, a small group of turnaround experts who helped to engineer the bankruptcies and reemergence of both General Motors and Chrysler. In government terms, Team Auto’s work began and ended in a flash, with Rattner back in private life before most of Wall Street descended on the Hamptons for vacation in August, 2009.

Rattner wrote a book about his tenure with Team Auto, Overhaul, which offered one of the first windows into the inner workings of the Obama Administration. Since returning from Washington, Rattner, the one-time Timesman, has circled back once again to storytelling.  You can catch him each week on Morning Joe on MSNBC, helping to cut through the clutter of complex economic arguments with handmade, Polioptics-friendly charts that offer with one glimpse the Rattnerian weltanschauung.

Rattner will be worth watching through the summer, assuming that Mitt Romney eventually prevails in his quest for the Republican nomination.  Rattner openly stakes his support for Barack Obama, but he earned a good portion of his substantial wealth in the same pursuit — private equity — as Governor Romney.  When Newt Gingrich targeted Romney’s record and tried to label him a callous corporate raider, Rattner offered Romney a thoughtful defense in POLITICO.  Assuming the Obama Campaign or its Super PAC supporters will follow a similar, poll-tested, micro-targetd line of attack in the fall, would Rattner throw a flag?

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James Fallows, National Correspondent for The Atlantic, knows what it’s like to work for a super-smart President who couldn’t get the country to validate that opinion when it came time to stand for re-election. Fallows worked for Jimmy Carter as his chief speechwriter for the first two years of his administration, before beginning a prolific writing career that has kept his byline on the front cover of major magazines and on a shelf full of books spanning four decades.

In the March, 2012 issue of The Atlantic (my dad — and many purists — still call it The Atlantic Monthly), Fallows is back with a long (12,000-word), provocative piece that could only be written at the pre-election crossroads facing a smart, ambitious and in many ways historic President counting down the months to re-validation — or repudiation — by the voters.

Fallows’ article, “Obama, Explained — Chess Master, or Pawn?” makes the argument that it’s not how the present starts his term that matters, it’s how he ends it: how much he’s grown, adapted and fixed problems that were evident on Day One. Using case studies which draw on Fallow’s unique expertise and experience, the author makes the case that Obama, who has proven himself an able political strategist, deserves a second term and won’t forfeit the chance to make good use of it.

Every Fallows article offers a cask of special treats for regular readers, and “Obama, Explained” is no different.

Fallows is an instrument-rated  pilot, so it’s no surprise that, at the beginning of the article, he uses an Austan Goolsbie aviation vignette that reads like it was taken from the “Airport” scripts of the 1970’s that provides a perfect metaphor for the turbulent ride of Obama’s first few years in office.

James H. Rowe in the FDR years

Later, at the end of the article, Fallows narrows in on Harry Truman as a model of presidential survival and brings him to life through the memoranda of James H. Rowe, Jr.  Rowe eventually become an eminent adviser to a succession of Democratic presidents, but I first came to know about him working for President Clinton and visiting FDR’s home in Hyde Park along with Andrew Friendly, who served as the President’s personal aide in the first years of Clinton’s administration. A young James Rowe served in the same role for FDR before serving in the Navy in World War II.

A few weeks after returning from Hyde Park, a package arrived containing framed copies of his Rowe’s writing and pictures of him at work FDR’s West Wing, a piece of history that constantly reminded us that, however important we might think our work at any moment while in office, White House aides occupy only a sliver of time on the stage in a drama that spans centuries.

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Adam and I promised to post two items we discussed at the top of the show.

First, a still photo of President Obama at the White House Science Fair.

President Obama at the White House Science Fair

Second, the video of Michelle Obama and Jimmy Fallon engaging in some friendly competition in the Executive Mansion and celebrating the Second Anniversary of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” Campaign.


We hope there’ll be more of this.  Following the manufactured dustup over Jodi Kantor’s book, The Obamas (read David Remnick’s review here), you might expect the First Family to be less inclined to have a little fun at the White House.  But Kantor was as laudatory of Michelle Obama in her appearance on Polioptics as she was in the conclusion of her book, and in the Fallon video you can see why: the woman has a great sense of humor and is a ringer in the Potato Sack Race.

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