POLITICS DECEMBER 3, 2009
Barack Obama convened his first official summit before he was even elected president. In October 2008, then-candidate Obama gathered a gaggle of business and political heavyweights--Paul Volcker, Eric Schmidt, Jennifer Granholm, Bill Richardson, etc.--in a Florida community college gymnasium for what his campaign billed as the “Growing American Jobs Summit.” “No cheerleading,” Obama admonished the 1,700 people who packed into the sweltering gym expecting a campaign rally. “We’ve got serious work to be done.” And then, for the next 90 minutes, Obama and the assembled worthies engaged in a wonky discussion that ranged from ideas for fixing the country’s electrical grid to calls for reforming its banking system.
(Click here for a slideshow on the decline of summits.)
It should hardly have been a surprise, then, that Obama would go a bit summit-crazy once he was actually in the White House. Little more than a month after taking office, he held a “Fiscal Responsibility Summit” where he solicited ideas for battling the deficit; a few weeks after that he hosted a “Health Care Summit” to kick off his drive for health care reform; and later still came the “H1N1 Preparedness Summit” and the “Distracted Driving Summit.” Then there were the assortment of international summits (Summit of the Americas, NATO Summit, G-8 Summit, G-20 Summit, ASEAN Summit), head-of-state summits (Karzai, Zardari, Medvedev, Hatoyama, Hu), and, of course, the Beer Summit with Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley. And today Obama’s summitry comes full circle when he holds another jobs summit, where he and 130 other people (including Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, and even Eric Schmidt, in case he has any new ideas he didn’t put forth 14 months ago) will chew over how to get the unemployment rate out of double digits. Add it all up and that’s an astounding amount of gas-baggery in such a relatively short period of time.
Granted, summits weren’t always merely occasions for bloviating. Once upon a time, they produced concrete results. The 1944 Bretton Woods Summit gave us the World Bank. In 1945, the summit at Yalta led to the division of Berlin. The 1978 summit at Camp David yielded an Israel-Egypt peace agreement. And even when summits failed to produce results, at least they weren’t short of drama, whether it was Nikita Kruschev and Dwight Eisenhower trading insults at the 1960 Paris Summit over the downing of Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane or Boris Yeltsin showing up drunk to a press conference at his Hyde Park Summit with Bill Clinton in 1995.
But at some point summits became less about results or even about drama and became all about gabbing. I’d argue that the change can be traced to December of 1992, when Bill Clinton convened his Economic Summit. It was a revolutionary move--and not just because Clinton wasn’t yet president. Prior to Clinton’s economic confab, the term summit had generally been given only to big international meetings or tête-à-têtes between world leaders. But Clinton took the “summit” label and slapped it on the two-day, 20-hour, 300-person gabfest he organized in a convention center in Little Rock to talk about the economy. As The New York Times reported at the time:
For nearly 10 hours, he sat in a swivel chair at the head of a large oval arrangement of tables at the downtown convention center here, taking notes, asking questions and offering his views about topics ranging from the declining military industry to rising health costs, from public works projects at home to international trade policy.
No new substantive ground was broken either in terms of the problems or of Mr. Clinton's positions. The grim statistics the economists provided about the slow rate of economic growth, the staggering deficit, rising health costs and other problems are familiar to economists and politicians and were staples of this year's election campaign.
Sounds productive and scintillating, huh? So what did Clinton get out of his economic summit? A lot. Even if it was devoid of drama and ideas, the summit, which was nationally televised, allowed Clinton to flex his wonk muscles and deliver the message that he cared in a manner that was far more effective than simply biting his lower lip and telling someone that he felt their pain. It also allowed him to enlist the support of--or, where necessary, co-opt--a diverse group of political forces, from academic economists to labor leaders to businessmen, when it came to enacting his economic agenda. Having been given a seat at the table, conference participants might be more reluctant to criticize Clinton’s economic agenda, even when they ultimately disagreed with it.
Obama has learned this lesson well. Just consider today’s jobs summit. Truth be told, there’s probably very little Obama can do to get the unemployment rate below 10 percent. Having already tried (and failed) to halt rising unemployment with a $787 billion stimulus package, it’s politically unfeasible for Obama to do a second, larger stimulus package, and it stands to reason that any smaller efforts will prove similarly unsuccessful when it comes to curbing unemployment. So gabbing about jobs, and projecting the message that you do indeed want to create some--particularly to your harsher critics on the left, like Krugman and Stiglitz--is the best Obama can hope for.
Indeed, in the age of Obama, the summit has replaced the vaunted bipartisan commission as the ultimate empty gesture. Where a president once kicked a nettlesome political problem down the road by assembling a panel of bipartisan worthies to produce a report on entitlement reform, say, or how we made the mistake of thinking Saddam had WMDs, Obama now holds a confab to jawbone the problem to death. Even better, unlike with a bipartisan commission, with a summit, there’s no final report to have to contend with. That’s not to say Obama’s wonkery and love of deliberation is a pose. It isn’t. It’s just that we know he’s doing it for real when, as in the case of Afghanistan, he does it behind closed doors.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic.