Political Players : Gov. Strickland Grades Obama

Gov. Strickland grades Obama

The following is an Atlantic interview with Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. A key swing state Democrat, Strickland gives the president a "B" on his tenure thus far (or "perhaps an A minus") and says he...

- Remains "hugely concerned" about the Afghan Surge

- Wants the Cornhusker Kickback killed

- Can't name any mistakes the president made

- Is buddies with Rahm (of course!)

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: As we speak, you're beginning a very tough re-election campaign with falling approval ratings, and either tied or trailing John Kasich, your Republican opponent, in the polls.  What do you think has gone wrong for you politically over the last few months?

GOV. STRICKLAND: I wouldn't say it's gone wrong with me politically.  I am dealing with a recession that obviously was not of my own making.  But I am responsible for managing the affairs of Ohio as we move through this recession and get to recovery.  Quite frankly, some of our own internal polls are not as negative as those that have been published.

And so I look forward to a very robust campaign.  I feel positive about my chances for re-election.  And I look forward to engaging John Kasich in a serious discussion of the issues facing Ohio.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: January will likely be Ohio's tenth straight month of double-digit unemployment.  Your state's lost 300,000 jobs since you took office.  How do you make the case to voters that this isn't at all the Democratic Party's fault?

GOV. STRICKLAND: Well, the fact is that when Barack Obama was inaugurated less than one year ago, I believe the economy lost over 750,000 jobs in that one month.  I think you can make the reasonable argument that the president and our Democratic members of Congress have worked to stabilize the economy.  The freefall has stopped.

And now we have the responsibility to rebuild this economy in the wake of the disaster that was caused by greed, and a Wall Street culture, and a lack of reasonable regulations.  So the people of Ohio are fairly politically astute.  They understand, I believe, that I did not cause this recession.  Barack Obama did not cause this recession.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: But President Obama's approval ratings have now dropped to the lowest levels of his tenure--driven largely by a collapse in support among independents, and a majority now opposed to his health care plan.  Do you think he could have handled this any better?

GOV. STRICKLAND: I think the president inherited a very unusual set of circumstances.  We had seen the deficit explode under President Bush.  We had a war that was not paid for.  And so he came into office in the midst of a recession that became the deepest recession in perhaps 70 or more years.

Has he been a perfect president?  Hasn't been a perfect president, but he's been a really good one in the midst of the most challenging circumstances.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: So you think that the challenge politically is voters simply don't understand how big the problems were he inherited.

GOV. STRICKLAND: Well, I'm not at all convinced that the president is in any political difficulty in terms of the politics of it.  I think he still has a fairly high approval rating.  I think people continue to trust him.  And health care is the toughest of all domestic issues to deal with.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Do you feel fully comfortable with the health care plan that was passed by the Senate?

GOV. STRICKLAND: Well, both the House and the Senate plans have strengths and weaknesses.  And I don't think that it's possible for anyone to know for sure what the final healthcare reform bill is going to look like.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: If you were a member of the Senate, would you have supported the Senate plan?

GOV. STRICKLAND: Oh, I absolutely would have. And I believe that when the final bill is signed into law, it's going to be a bill that will be hugely beneficial to our country, and to the people of our country.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Do you think Senator Nelson's special deal for Nebraska should be removed from the bill?

GOV. STRICKLAND: Absolutely I think it should be removed from the bill. You know, I was in Congress 12 years. I understand that there is a process that occurs as major legislation is being considered, and that there are many things included and excluded from bills as they are initially presented and voted upon that do not remain in the final product.  And I think that's certainly going to be true of the health care bill.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Last month, Governor, you told an Ohio newspaper that you deserved a grade of B for your performance in 2009.

GOV. STRICKLAND: I said a solid B.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: I'll correct that, a solid B.  How would you grade President Obama's performance?

GOV. STRICKLAND: Well, I would grade the President a solid B as well.  Perhaps an A minus.  Given the circumstances that he has faced, I think he has done very well.  And the fact that the economy was in such a freefall, I can tell you that I was fearful.  And I think a lot of Americans were fearful a year ago that we were perhaps on the verge of a total financial, economic, international meltdown.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: If preventing a depression has been his greatest success since taking office, what's been his biggest mistake?

GOV. STRICKLAND: Well, I am concerned about the Afghanistan buildup.  And you know, I'm not ready to say it was a mistake, but I can tell you that I am hugely concerned about the commitment that has been made there.  And I am personally unsure as to what the outcome was likely to be.  So I don't know that I would call it a failure or a mistake but I can share that, in my judgment, there is hazard associated with the policy that we seem to be pursuing.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Do you think he's made any mistakes?

GOV. STRICKLAND: Oh, we all make mistakes.  But in terms of a major policy mistake, I really can't think of one.  I think the stimulus bill was necessary.  And I know that it took compromise to get it passed.  So any weaknesses associated with the stimulus, I would not attribute to the president.

I believe it was absolutely essential to address health care reform. Perhaps there were things that he could have done in developing support for that bill that he did not do.  But there's nothing that I can think of.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: How often are you in touch with the president?  How often per month do you think you speak with him?

GOV. STRICKLAND: Oh, I don't speak with the president on a monthly basis.  Certainly, I've spoken with him a number of times since he's been in office.  He's been in Ohio a number of times since he's been in office.

But I talk with some regularity with members of his team.  His Cabinet members seem to be very available to me. And Rahm Emanuel, who is a friend going back a long way while we were in the Congress together, I've talked to Rahm whenever I need to.  He is very responsive to me.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Are you still in touch with Secretary Clinton, who was the candidate you so strongly supported two years ago?

GOV. STRICKLAND: I'm certainly in touch with her---not on any regular basis.  The last time I saw her, she invited me to a luncheon with the Indian Prime Minister, and we had a chance to talk then.  And President Clinton has been very attentive to me.  He was in Ohio last week helping me raise money.  And he's done that in New York and in Miami.  And so I feel very connected to the Clintons, both the former president and to the current secretary of State.  And I think she's doing a wonderful job and I certainly wish her well, and I'm very grateful for her service to the country.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: You come to politics from a pretty unusual background: raised in Appalachia, the eighth of nine children, a minister and prison psychologist before you were first elected to Congress.  Do you see any parallels between working in prisons and working with politicians?

GOV. STRICKLAND: You know, I've heard a lot of jokes--

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: I don't mean it as a joke.

GOV. STRICKLAND: In a serious way, let me say to that I think much of what it takes to be a successful politician, something that I aspire to be obviously, it takes the ability to work with many different kinds of individuals with different personalities, and value systems.  And I believe my experience in working with the prison population, as I did for over ten years, as well as other experiences that I've had within the mental health profession has been relevant to my ability to be successful politically.

Brian Goldsmith is a new contributor to the Atlantic. From 2006-2009, he worked at CBS News as a political producer to Evening News Anchor Katie Couric, and founded CBSNews.com's political interview series. Prior to that, he served as a Project Manager at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, and an assistant producer to Jeff Greenfield at CNN. He graduated from Harvard College and is currently a student at Stanford Law School.