Transitioning from Obama to Trump: A guide

01/24/17 – BOSTON, MA. Stephen Flynn, Margaret Burnham, Carole Bell and Jonathan Kaufmann speak on a panel as part of the US Democracy – Civility Series held in the Curry Ballroom on Jan. 24, 2017. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern

“We find the fol­lowing head­lines in The New York Times: ‘World leaders face a new era in Wash­ington.’ ‘Slam­ming media, Trump advances two false­hoods.’ ‘Defiant yet jubi­lant voices flood U.S. cities as women rally for rights.’ ‘Racial progress is real. But so is racist progress.’

So much to talk about.”

Thus began Uta Poiger, dean of the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, in intro­ducing the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary panel dis­cus­sion “Tran­si­tions in the U.S. Democ­racy: The Pres­i­den­tial Inau­gu­ra­tion, Poli­cies, and Protests” on Tuesday evening in the Curry Stu­dent Center Ballroom.

The panel pro­vided crit­ical insights into demo­c­ratic insti­tu­tions and our respon­si­bil­i­ties as cit­i­zens in light of the tran­si­tion from the Obama to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. The varying per­spec­tives of the four pan­elists pro­vided rich con­text for under­standing how we got where we are and what might come next. The panel com­prised Stephen Flynn, pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence; Mar­garet Burnham, pro­fessor of law; Carole Bell, assis­tant pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies; and Jonathan Kaufman, pro­fessor of journalism.

Mod­er­ator Rebecca Riccio, director of the Social Impact Lab, high­lighted some of the themes the speakers would address: “the fragility of polit­ical insti­tu­tions, the changing media industry, the changing norms of civil dis­course, global power shifts, growing inequality.”

I encourage you not to think of them as iso­lated phe­nomena but to try to visu­alize how they are related to each other,” she told the stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff who packed the room. “Find the levers you can push to affect democracy.”

Be part of the process

Stephen Flynn, who directs the Global Resilience Insti­tute at North­eastern, offered an inside-​​government view, having served as the lead home­land secu­rity policy adviser for Barack Obama’s tran­si­tion team in 2008-​​09.

Flynn empha­sized the dif­fi­culty of pulling together a whole new bureau­cracy, and how espe­cially dif­fi­cult that would be for the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion given that instead of one chief of staff there are four major players at the top. “The power in Wash­ington is largely the power of negation—to make things not happen,” he said. “It’s really hard to make things happen.”

On the flip side, he said, he’s observed the poten­tial for great move­ment among the public in response to the tran­si­tion. “I’m seeing enor­mous capacity within civil society to engage in ways that it has not yet engaged on so many impor­tant issues—and how that might be able to get us to a better place,” he said. To get there, he encour­aged audi­ence mem­bers to take action at the local and state levels. “Have your voices be part of the process,” he said.

Civic engage­ment a must

Mar­garet Burnham, who is founding director of the law school’s Civil Rights and Restora­tive Jus­tice Project, stressed the “crit­ical impor­tance of civic engage­ment as we move forward.”

Citing Saturday’s Women’s March as well as many ear­lier demon­stra­tions including the 1999 Seattle WTO protests and the Black Lives Matter and Occupy move­ments, Burnham empha­sized both the neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive aspects of the cur­rent polit­ical cli­mate. “It’s a moment full of crisis and oppor­tu­nity,” she said. “It’s fright­ening, exciting, and demanding all at the same time. It’s a time when all things are possible.”

It’s a moment full of crisis and oppor­tu­nity. It’s fright­ening, exciting, and demanding all at the same time.

Mar­garet Burnham, Pro­fessor of Law

She pointed out that the Women’s March had no “tit­ular head,” but rather was a col­lab­o­ra­tive enter­prise rep­re­senting a variety of polit­ical views. “It was value driven rather than issue driven,” she said. “We came en masse to show we are a com­mu­nity.” As such, the march pre­sented strate­gies for future actions.

Marches can be the begin­nings of move­ments, but they can also fail, she cau­tioned. The 2006 Immi­grant Rights move­ment was one example of the latter. Looking to the future, we as cit­i­zens must embrace a host of philoso­phies, she said, noting the sig­nif­i­cance of Bernie Sanders’ run. “Rad­i­calism in this elec­tion was as Amer­ican as any other form of expres­sion,” she said.

Whence public discourse?

For her part, Bell’s research focuses on where the media, pol­i­tics, public opinion, and public policy con­verge. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion is not “busi­ness as usual,” she said, noting that the sig­na­ture playing of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” at the Inau­gu­ra­tion Ball was a “sym­bolic expres­sion of who Trump is.”

How then, she asked, should we recon­tex­tu­alize the role of public com­mu­ni­ca­tion and public dis­course? His­tor­i­cally, pres­i­dents have a hon­ey­moon period, with con­cil­ia­tory media cov­erage and high public opinion rat­ings. Donald Trump, on the other hand, had a mere 45 per­cent approval rating as of this week, according to Gallup’s tracking poll. Press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer, in his first briefing, dis­puted the media’s report of the size of the inau­gu­ra­tion crowd, noting the cov­erage was “demoralizing.

Bell asked: Where does that leave the media? Isn’t part of its mis­sion to scru­ti­nize, to pro­vide checks on the facts? Why else would it be called the Fourth Estate?

The role of public opinion, too, may have to be rede­fined. “Cab­inet appointees in the past reacted to public opinion,” she said, recalling the with­drawal of former Pres­i­dent Bill Clinton’s nom­i­nees for U.S. attorney general—Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood—because of the public’s reac­tion to their employing undoc­u­mented workers to care for their children.

Learn the thoughts of others

Jonathan Kaufman, director of Northeastern’s School of Jour­nalism, offered a his­tor­ical per­spec­tive on the rela­tion­ship between admin­is­tra­tions and the press gleaned from his many years as a reporter and editor for The Boston Globe, Bloomberg News, and The Wall Street Journal.

Break out of your bubble.

Jonathan Kaufman, Pro­fessor of Journalism

The press in gen­eral is having a very dif­fi­cult time,” he said. “They don’t know what to make of Trump.” They have come under attack from admin­is­tra­tions before, of course: Nixon and Agnew on the Pen­tagon Papers is just one famous example. “But Donald Trump uses his neg­a­tive feel­ings about the press as a ral­lying cry, and the public by and large agrees with him,” said Kaufman. “And he is very media savvy.”

Media orga­ni­za­tions today have new con­cerns: “The eco­nomics of the media are per­ilous,” he said. News­pa­pers—The New York Times, The Wash­ington Post, The Boston Globe—were family-​​owned out­fits when Nixon went after them. But now Amazon’s Jeff Bezos owns the Post, the Red Sox’ John Henry owns the Globe. “They are untested,” said Kaufman. “What hap­pens if Trump brings finan­cial pres­sure on Amazon?” No one knows how these owners will respond.

There are impor­tant lessons from the cam­paign we can all learn, he said. “Break out of your bubble. We relied too much on pun­dits, on polling. Not going out to talk to people blinded reporters and edi­tors. Now we see media orga­ni­za­tions sending people out into communities.”

The event was pre­sented by the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, the Office of Stu­dent Affairs, and the School of Law.

“Tran­si­tions in the U.S. Democ­racy: The Pres­i­den­tial Inau­gu­ra­tion, Poli­cies, and Protests” was part of “Con­flict. Civility. Respect. Peace. North­eastern Reflects”: An edu­ca­tional series on civic sus­tain­ability for the North­eastern com­mu­nity hosted by Michael S. Dukakis in con­junc­tion with the Pres­i­den­tial Council on Inclu­sion and Diver­sity. Informal follow-​​up forums, with a pizza lunch, will con­tinue throughout the week: One will be held on Thursday from 12 to 1:30 p.m. at 909 Renais­sance Park. Another will take place on Friday from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. in the Sacred Space, 203 Ell Hall. Please RSVP to m.​newton@​northeastern.​edu.