Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, discussed his new book, “Obama: The Call of History,” to a crowd of about 200 people at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library Tuesday.
As a mainstay on the coverage of modern American presidency, Baker has covered Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and the current Donald Trump administration. During his 20-year tenure at The Washington Post and most recently at The New York Times, Baker has established an intimate rapport with some of the most powerful figures in American politics. This lecture was first Baker's return to Ann Arbor since 2009.
It was these journalistic experiences, behind the disciplined facade of the 44th president, which inspired Baker to collaborate with New York Times photographers and publish a book that presents a portrait of the first African-American president.
“I wanted to write a book about President Obama because I felt like he is in some ways one of the most interesting presidents we have had,” Baker said. “Partly because we don’t really know who he is. We have struggled his entire time in public life to define who Barack Obama is, what his presidency meant and how we see him in the context of history.”
Described by presidential historian Michael Beschloss as “an acute observer of the modern presidency,” Baker anchored his new book on the enigmatic legacy of Obama. According to Baker, he was arguably the first introvert in Oval Office since Jimmy Carter, a characteristic that Baker became well attuned to while covering the president.
“He was opaque even to those of us who covered him day in and day out,” Baker said. “When he came to the back of the plane on Air Force One to visit the press in the back, there wasn’t any of this sort of chit-chat, ‘Hey, how is the family going.’ It was all business. He came back because he wanted to say something. He was always very, very crisp and business-like. He didn’t let his guard down. He didn’t give you playful nicknames like Bush would give us, and he didn’t tell us old Ozark tales like Bill Clinton would tell you.”
However, some audience members said they found themselves wishing for Baker to share more of these quirky anecdotes from his career as a prolific journalist.
Engineering and Business junior Kevin Li noted he wanted to hear more of Baker’s own experience reporting in the White House.
“I think overall I wish he had spent a little more time talking about specific observations he could have made as White House chief correspondent for The New York Times,” he said. “I really enjoyed the stuff about how Biden would tap people on the shoulder and kind of joke with them, whereas Obama was more like back with the message. But, I think it is always really insightful when you have such a public figure who is so close to the presidency physically here in Ann Arbor.”
Business junior Abhi Muchhal also attended Baker’s talk and was struck by Baker’s observations of how hallmark issues unfolded within the Obama administration.
“I think it was really interesting how when you first read news stories, they are often polarized in one direction or the other and his perspective taking a lot of the moments in Obama’s history was talking about the nuance,” Muchhal said. “How some people thought about it this way, some people thought about this way and how Obama ended up deciding it. So it was an interesting way to think about Obama’s legacy even though it has only been a couple years.”
During the question and answer period, many audience members echoed the sentiment of Li and Muchhal and expressed a desire to hear more of Baker's own perspective on the issues that defined the eight years of the Obama administration. However, Baker was quick to point out his job is not to insert his own opinions. Baker’s talk was a collection of observations and an attempt to forecast how Obama will be remembered in history.
“He is a very disciplined guy, and I think we saw that,” Baker said. “But, because of that, we didn’t necessarily always, you know, see the world through his eyes. We weren’t always sure you know what he was thinking or where he was going … Obama will occupy an important place in our history, we just don’t know what it will be exactly and that is what makes him so interesting.”