Obama, Baker call for bipartisanship at Baker Institute’s 25th anniversary gala

An expansive and elaborately decorated tent in the center of Rice University’s campus hosted more than 1,000 guests gathered to hear two statesmen discuss the importance of bipartisanship and shared values in a time of political discord.

Former President Barack Obama shares a laugh with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, left, and moderator Jon Meacham. Photos courtesy of Rice’s Baker Institute

Former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State James A. Baker spoke for nearly an hour in a conversation moderated by presidential historian Jon Meacham. The Nov. 27 event marked the 25th anniversary of Rice’s nonpartisan Baker Institute for Public Policy, which, according to the welcome message from gala co-chairs Franci Neely, Andrea White, John Nau III and Ned Holmes, “has been a beacon of rational and thoughtful discussion among national and global policymakers.”

The gala raised $5.4 million to further the think tank’s research and programming, Baker Institute Director Edward Djerejian announced. The institute has now hosted every living former president of the United States since its inception in 1993.

“The motto we have chosen for this anniversary, ‘A Quarter Century – Making History,’ bears particular resonance tonight,” Djerejian said. “It symbolizes the culmination of our commitment to strive for excellence and nonpartisanship.”

Rice President David Leebron, joined at the event by his wife, University Representative Y. Ping Sun, welcomed the attendees and the students, faculty and staff attending a watch party at the Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall.

“I do want to welcome President Obama and note, as the (Rice) Thresher did 11 years ago, our amazingly parallel careers,” Leebron said. “We both attended Harvard Law School, we both served as president of the Harvard Law Review and, as noted then by the Thresher, we both married women way out of our league.”

Obama and Baker with Baker Institute Director Edward Djerejian.

“It’s good to be back in Houston,” Obama said, greeting a cheering audience before paying tribute to the local pro football team. “Congratulations on the Texans’ victory yesterday.”

Obama and Baker — who served in a series of top-level staff and cabinet positions under former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — devoted most of their conversation to the causes of heightened partisanship that developed between Baker’s first years in Washington and Obama’s presidency decades later. They largely agreed that a changing media landscape and partisan redistricting have caused the parties to diverge.

“Members of Congress are primarily motivated by keeping their seat and it’s getting worse and worse,” Obama said. He expressed support for the idea of independent redistricting commissions, saying under the current process, “the elected official chooses the voters rather than the other way around.”

On the media’s impact, Obama recalled the more consolidated news landscape during the Reagan administration. “There was a common set of facts, a baseline” to which both parties responded, Obama said.

“The responsible center in American politics has disappeared,” said Baker, the institute’s honorary chair. “You have the advent of the internet, and that really makes it easy to be divisive. Divisiveness sells.”

Obama said civility can be nurtured by embracing the country’s common interests.

“There were certain ideals no matter how they were viewed,” Obama said. “There were certain ideals we had to follow because that was part of American leadership in the world and it was part of what made us a great country. Those are now being contested, in part because we don’t have this common base of information.”

Rice President David Leebron welcomes the gala attendees.

In a discussion on foreign policy, Baker expressed concern over the state of international institutions and the current global standing of the U.S.

“American leadership in the world is absolutely imperative, no other country can do it.” said Baker, who underscored that the U.S. won the Cold War “because we had alliances.”

Obama, who praised Baker’s accomplishments in international diplomacy, agreed.

“We have a stake in making sure that we have our act together enough,” he said. “Because everybody else, whether they admit it or not, tends to follow our lead.”

About the Baker Institute

The Baker Institute ranks among the top three university-affiliated think tanks in the world. In recent years, the institute has created and strengthened specific centers and programs that address key public policy issues, including the Center for Energy Studies, Center for Health and Biosciences, Center for the Middle East, Mexico Center, Center for Public Finance, McNair Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Growth, Presidential Elections Program and Drug Policy Program.

For a timeline of the institute’s history, go to www.bakerinstitute.org/timeline.

The honorary hosts of the institute’s 25th anniversary year are Hushang and Shahla Ansary.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.