Smooth-Talking SOBs

What the rich guys and corporate types in Aspen think of Obama.

Alan Simpson, pictured with his fiscal reform commission co-chairman, Erskine Bowles.

ASPEN, Colo.—We’re taking a break inside the Doerr-Hosier Center, a stately box of glass and concrete that sits on a green hill as elegantly as a tiara sits on Miss USA. Former Sen. Alan Simpson, the co-chairman of the president’s bipartisan fiscal reform commission, is standing a few steps away from me. I start to ask him about the debt-ceiling debate, which was just discussed by President Obama in a morning press conference, but Walter Isaacson, the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, has spotted the senator and walked right over.

Here’s a smooth-talking son of a bitch!” says Simpson, with admiration.

Isaacson rolls with it. “You’ve got to start being a smooth son of a bitch about your deficit commission!” he says. “We’ve got to keep selling it!”

This was what Simpson wanted to talk about. “Bill Clinton works Obama over on this baby about once a week,” he says. “He went into there and said, ‘God, if I’d appointed a commission, and five Democrats and five Republicans and an independent come out with a recommendation, I’d have taken that in a minute!’”

We spend the next 10 minutes hashing out the politics and listening to Simpson hit his expletives-per-minute quota. Between the expletives he describes a world of bipartisan compromise—of AARP backing down on Social Security, of Grover Norquist backing down on tax hikes. “Republicans can’t be in thrall to him!” says Simpson. He comes back to the debt debate, the last best hope for compromise, and explains how Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner—”tough little guy”—can broker a deal. He offers a script: If you think I’m shitting ya, I’ve raided every pirate cove, torn up all the gold crates, and this is it—Aug 2.

“If it wasn’t for that,” says Simpson, “this would be the same old shit.”

This is the mood—call it optimistic desperation, or maybe desperate optimism—that pervades Aspen, where I arrived Monday. Politico has dubbed the event “D.C.’s summer camp.” Happily, very little of the content, and few of the luminaries, are intimately connected with politics. That said, I see no reason why a political celebrity would want to pass this up. This is the sort of place where people smile and show off blurry cell phone photos that they’ve captured of Alan Greenspan or Michael Chertoff as they strolled over to the Greenwald Tent or the Koch Building. (The Koch Building—yes, donated by David, who owns a home nearby—has a seemingly endless supply of Pepsi Max.)

The people on the Aspen campus this week pay attention to politics, but they have slightly different attitudes. The first is boundless optimism. Think-tankers and sustainability pioneers and representatives talk up the investors they’ve got and the interest they’re generating. Panels on “green jobs” and education reform and food policy are packed.

There’s a good reason for this. If you’re interested in making money, the sticky political status of these issues isn’t necessarily good. But it’s something you can deal with. After one session, I picked up a helpful, glossy brochure from Ernst & Young, titled “Action Amid Uncertainty: The Business Response to Climate Change” (PDF). It finds that “despite regulatory uncertainty, climate change investment is on the rise,” and that “the majority of companies surveyed [internationally] say they are committed to investing in climate change initiatives in 2010, and they are interested in adopting innovative approaches to product and service development.” So Congress can’t pass a comprehensive cap-and-trade bill? So Republicans are putting their hands on their hearts and pledging that climate change is a hoax? The safe bets are still on regulation and green energy, still.

And then there’s the second view of politics in Aspen: Despair. The crowd here is not monolithically liberal, but it is monolithically disappointed in Obama. The disappointments change from subject to subject. Phil Beck, a Republican lawyer from Chicago, says Obama “squandered an opportunity to pass some really effective legislation” and “handed it off to Reid and Pelosi.” Martha Jackson, whose husband’s company develops oil deals in South America, says Obama has prolonged the war in Afghanistan more than she would have liked.

How can he turn things around?

“He can win a second term,” she says.

This was the tenor of a lot of Obama critiques. On Tuesday afternoon, David Axelrod took a friendly shellacking from Time’s Joe Klein about all the opportunities Obama had missed. The attendees agreed with Klein—to a point. Their questions, about Obama’s economic appointments and about his messaging problems, all began with some variation of “I’m going to vote for Obama again, and work for him, but …”

No one expressed that worried ambivalence quite like Feisal Abdul Rauf. I walked with the president of the Cordoba Initiative, the martyr of the “Ground Zero Mega-Mosque” tempest, when he was on his way to see Axelrod. Rauf had gotten only the least helpful of assists from Obama, back when the heat was on—a comment that opposed the furor over the project, followed by a walkback about he, Barack Obama, was agnostic on whether it should be built. Was that really so good for the cause, I asked?

“He has to worry about winning an election,” Rauf said with a shrug.

Rauf caught Axelrod, and handed me his empty cup of tea so he could rustle up his business card. He walked up to Obama’s strategist and gave him some advice.

“Just win the election in 2012!”

There’s desperation where there used to be hope. No one here still believes Obama can engineer great change. He’s what we’ve got; he’s offering more than the Republicans. The most realistic ideas about what can be done politically are predicated on what Washington will be forced to do by crisis.

Which takes us back to Simpson. The Aspen consensus is that bipartisan fiscal reform needs to happen—it must be willed into existence, and a critical mass of smart people could help. After Isaacson departs, Simpson is buttonholed by someone else, someone who wants to bring him and Erskine Bowles together to speak at the Council of Foreign Relations. Sooner or later, the Washington consensus will be replaced by the Aspen consensus. If Washington is going to keep dealing with political crises, forced upon them by stasis, the city will eventually listen to the bipartisans. It has to, doesn’t it?

“We’re at 15 percent revenue, and historically it’s been closer to 20 percent,” says Simpson. “We’ve never had a war without a tax, and now we’ve got two,” he says. “Absolute bullshit.”