Steven Rattner stuck to accepted facts and popular analysis when answering the self-imposed question, What the hell is going on? This question, addressing American politics, was the subject of the final lecture of the Summer Institute Speaker Series at the Hebrew Center.
Rattner led the reconstruction of the automobile industry for the Obama administration, and is now the chairman and chief executive officer of Willett Advisors, which manages former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropic and personal assets.
Before he began his remarks, Rattner conducted an unofficial poll asking which audience members voted for Hillary Clinton, President Trump, independents, or abstained in the 2016 election. There were under 10 who did not vote for Clinton.
In 2016, “[Americans] elected a president with an unprecedented lack of governing experience,” Rattner said. With a high turnover of staff at the cabinet level and an air of corruption hanging around the administration, Trump seems to be on shaky ground. “If you put it all together,” Rattner said, “Trump hasn’t drained the swamp, he’s made it deeper.”
This distrust is spreading to international allies, who are questioning their relationships with the U.S. Rattner said based on his extensive travels, it was “extraordinary how quickly our standing in the world has been diminished.”
He did, however, offer a word of hope: “I would rather be playing the Democrats’ hand in the midterm elections.” Historically, the midterms go against the incumbent party. This is good news for Democrats;, however, future success hinges on who is nominated for the 2020 presidential bid. This is made especially interesting by the split between institutional and progressive Democrats, as Rattner termed the two factions. Institutional Democrats are exemplified by figures such as Hillary Clinton or Joseph Biden, while progressive Democrats would be people like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won an upset primary victory against the Democratic incumbent in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Rattner expressed skepticism at the electoral power the progressive faction would hold in a general election, but acknowledged that momentum in the party seemed to be moving that way.
This hopeful thought was tempered by Rattner’s prediction of the future of the economy. After many years in finance, Rattner has been following market trends, and the forcast isn’t looking good. Recovery from the 2008 economic recession is 10 years old this year, and that’s a long time in economic terms. “I don’t know that we’re going to get to 2020 without another economic event,” Rattner said. He also warned that the budget deficit needs to be reduced. “Our nation’s finances are in an unstable position,” he said. With a deficit sitting over the trillion-dollar mark, economic trouble could force future generations into a lower standard of living. Maintaining or growing this level of debt, Rattner said, is “the most rapacious intergenerational theft. We’re stealing from our kids to maintain our standard of life.”
Rattner also briefly discussed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, informing the audience that he had no inside knowledge on the matter. His main argument was to remind the public to stick to the facts that exist, and keep in mind what the public doesn’t know. It has yet to be revealed what role President Trump or people close to him played in this scandal. He drew comparisons to Watergate when he said, “I don’t believe absent the release of those tapes, Nixon would have ever resigned … I would be very surprised if there are tapes like that for Trump.” Rattner was working as a news clerk in Washington for the New York Times at the end of the Watergate scandal; however, he didn’t cover it specifically.
He also argued that the bar for impeachment should be high, and reminded the audience, “lying to the American public isn’t illegal.”
Rattner offered little insight into how to solve the problems he had described in his remarks. He ended with a vague bipartisan request, “The stakes are high … it’s important, whichever party you’re with, to try and move us forward.”