Chris Matthews on Disappointment with Obama, Super Committee's Crying 'Uncle'

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Chris Matthews, anchor of MSNBC's "Hardball" and NBC's "The Chris Matthews Show," and author of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, talks about the Kennedy legacy, and today's political news—from the death of the Super Committee to the 2012 GOP race.

Nothing to root for

Chris Matthews isn't trying to hide his disappointment with Barack Obama—he's trumpeting it.

"There's nothing to root for," Matthews lamented on MSNBC over the weekend. He compared Obama's presidency to that of John F. Kennedy's, which saw the creation of the NASA's moon program and the Peace Corps; there are no such presidential initiatives to be proud of today, Matthews implied. "What are we trying to do in this administration?" Matthews asked. "Why does he want a second term?"

It's a thread that Matthews picked up today on the Brian Lehrer Show.

Everything I said was, I think, irrefutable...He promised to be a transformative president; in that case, you have to tell us what you're going to transform.

What Obama should have learned from Kennedy

Kennedy famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." Chris Matthews would like to hear the current president say something similar today; by his account, Obama has not stressed participatory politics since inauguration day.

Politics is not giving people things and expecting gratitude; it's letting them give you something, letting them invest in you. It's sharing. When Kennedy was president, every male, every female felt they were part of something, part of something that was American and patriotic and big and adventurous. They were all given a role.

Matthews feels as though we haven't been told where we're going and what we need to do—what each of us needs to contribute—in order to get there. In the past we had "war efforts" where people were charged with responsibilities that were as simple as buying war bonds; "Real participation is what leads to investment and what leads to patriotic spirit," Matthews said. Where's the modern equivalent?

Most disappointing for Matthews is that it's a mantle Obama said he would claim. He said he would be a transformative president, that he would strive to be among greats like Kennedy. Matthews notes that Obama surrounded himself with Kennedy people, Kennedy family, and had all these "evocations of Kennedy" in his speeches and events.

The chief reason why he should imitate Kennedy is that he promised he would, to do those grand inclusive things that really drive a country.

'No one faces defeat by being too extreme'

 The debt super committee's all-but-certain imminent failure underscores the political strife that many voters hoped would end with Obama's election. Matthews pointed out that both sides are so bound by hardcore constituency concerns that to give up anything in the name of a deal would be seen as suicide by bases that are increasingly extreme and unwilling to give ground.

The dangerous thing in American politics is this model we have now where no one can be defeated by a moderate...No one faces defeat by being too extreme. You can always win by going to the right if you're a conservative or left if you're a liberal. That model is very unstable.

Which is why, Matthews thinks, any compromise would almost have to happen away from the public eye and in secret. If compromise is seen as weak, compromise where no one can see.

It almost has to be done with invisible hands because no one wants to say they initiated it, and that's our problem.