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May 22, 2009

Uncommon Interview with David Sanger

David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, will deliver the keynote address at the University of Chicago Democrats’ fourth annual Progressive Gala Saturday. Sanger, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who has reported on stories from the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger to North Korea’s nuclear arms program, recently published The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power. The Maroon spoke to Sanger about partisanship, inheritance, and the very limited value of a White House news briefing.

Chicago Maroon: The Progressive Gala is being billed as a non-partisan celebration of progressivism. What do you think about that?

David Sanger: I’ll only talk at non-partisan events. I’m not a partisan myself. I’m not a registered Democrat or a registered Republican, and I don’t take partisan positions. Most of the problems I deal with in the book, most of the foreign policy problems don’t have a Democrat or Republican solution. They’re pragmatic problems. They are not party issues. Too often we let our partisanship get in the way of our pragmatism.

CM: Can you talk to me a little bit about how your new book deals with the idea of evolution in government?

DS: It is an examination of what happened in the United States as the top leadership of the country was so wrapped up in the problems of a war that they thought would last six months and has now gone on six years. They ignored other threats...because they were too tied up to deal with them extensively and they ignored opportunities because they were so wrapped up. It’s a book about the cost of distraction.

CM: How do you think the Obama administration is doing with confronting that inheritance so far?

DS: Well, they’ve certainly been busy. You’ve seen a huge flow of events. Just thinking about the last two days….Yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu was at the Oval Office, which raised both issues of Middle-East peace and, of course, Iran. Today, there was a big change in the way the United States government will regulate fuel efficiency. This afternoon, President Obama is meeting with the four people, two Democrats and two Republicans, who have been most vocal about building down to zero on nuclear weapons. This gives you a sense of the pace at which these guys are operating. But in the first hundred days, there’s agenda setting and huge symbolic acts. It’s in the second and third hundred days that they start to make really tough decisions.

CM: What do you think about the administration’s priorities, given what you’ve seen so far?

DS: The book argued that Iraq was a distraction from bigger threats, and I would certainly say that they are now focusing on the bigger threats. Pakistan, Afghanistan; Pakistan more than Afghanistan...I think that has been a move of reorienting us. [Obama] has felt he’s had to hold on to some of President Bush’s policies. Those are the kinds of tradeoffs you begin to make in that second hundred days. That’s been a fairly significant change from the campaign days, when you simply declare big change.

CM: If a reader is looking for changes or indications of where the White House will really come down on something, what should they look for?

DS: In all White House reporting, I figure that the White House briefing gives you about 4 percent of what you need to understand. I don’t care if Democrats are in office, Republicans are in office, or Martians are in office. The hardest part is not seeing what they’re declaring they’re going to do on Iran or Afghanistan; it’s digging back into the internal debates.