San Antonio, Texas—As roughly the total political mirror of morning speaker Gov. Howard Dean, Karen Hughes, former G.W. Bush Administration insider and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, told Thursday’s Benefits Selling Expo audience a thing or two about her hopes for America—and her strong faith in the political future of presumed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Hughes, who lives in nearby Austin, was also able to provide some interesting insights from her experiences inside the White House, through moments including Sept. 11 and the early days of the Iraq War. “Those were three very intense years at the State Department,” she noted
Mostly, Hughes—who now works as global vice chair of international PR company Burson-Marsteller—made it very clear that she feels that President Obama has done a major disservice to the American public, and has a good chance of being defeated this fall, as a result.
Hughes contends that Bush’s decisions to begin the TARP industry bailout program (“a very politically unpopular move, although the other option was the world’s economy going over the edge,” she said) as well as the equally unpopular notion to stage an eventually victorious surge in Iraq (“it’s a big deal to lose a war, as we found with Vietnam,” she added), both ended up being political gifts to Obama that the current administration has bashed from the beginning.
“We’re living in anxious and uncertain times, with the longest period of continued discontent that pollsters have seen since they started measuring these things,” Hughes said. “People are frustrated, angry and deeply worried. After years of being told that we could all achieve the American Dream, people my age, the Baby Boomers, are sincerely worried for our kids.”
Hughes says she believes that while Americans had the best of intentions in electing their first African-American president, the payoff in good will has been squandered over the last four years.
“People voted for an idea, the whole ‘yes we could’ thing, and their hopes were raised, but now they’ve been dashed. And clearly the stage is set for a major philosophical debate, between those who support a limited role for government, and those with a more paternalistic view. There’s a fundamental recognition that the path we’re on is not sustainable.
Having been through the experiences of life in the White House—frantic speechwriting efforts, a mixed bag of global responsibilities and a “dizzying blur of meetings” on complicated topics—Hughes says she sincerely believes that Romney is the right person for the job, come this fall.
“I went to the White House and discovered that life there is a series of really difficult decisions, and my role as Counselor to the President was to help him become a disciplined decision maker; you need a relentless focus on what matters. I think that Romney has great experience making executive decisions, and he really understands the impact that policies have. He’s also shown himself to be disciplined, steady and a good listener.”
Hughes added that she believes Romney’s experience specializing in “turnarounds” (such as his successful work with the once-troubled Salt Lake City Winter Olympics) and his so-far quiet commitment to faith and his family will also resonate with embattled American voters.
Hughes says that any President needs to surround himself with people who aren’t sugar-coating the truth, and thus her time with George W. Bush was particularly poignant—even if he did have a tendency to occasionally make up words as he went along.
In sharp contrast to Dean’s remarks earlier in the day (“I think we heard some wishful thinking,” she said), Hughes says she believes the reality at present is that Obama and Romney are actually in a “statistical tie” for the presidency, and that Romney’s recent experience in more than a dozen debates puts him at a great advantage when the real action begins later this year.
“If I were on the Obama team, I’d be worried. If you look at it through the ‘right track, wrong track’ measurement, just 33 percent of Americans feel that the President is on the right track, right now. I think they’ve also seen a cautionary tale in the elections that have just taken place around the world, ones that have thrown out some huge incumbent candidate.”
On the issue of health care reform, Hughes said she wasn’t able to predict the Supreme Court’s decision, though she believes either outcome will provide political leverage for the Republican camp.
“They’re going to be emboldened either way, but if the court upholds the law, I think that Republicans will be white hot,” she noted. “It all points to concerns about the declining trust in our institutions. And a lot of Americans fundamentally believe that the federal government can’t force you to buy something, especially health insurance.”
Despite the past few years of malaise and trouble, Hughes said her experiences traveling around the globe and meeting people in developing and war-torn nations only served to reinforce her faith and positivity about the American example.
“I’m still confident that the country can tackle the challenges we face. And I do truly believe that public service is a noble endeavor, and that most people who get involved really do want to make a positive difference. Everywhere I went around the world, I saw Americans who were working to expand opportunities through a diplomacy of deeds.”