Another one of those long, epic profiles of the President was published the other day. You know the type — a 20,000 word wonder where the reporter gets to fly around in Air Force One and hang out in the Oval Office and notice how the President swears a lot and misses his children and once came this close to bombing some country before ultimately deciding against it. The sort of longform exposé that’s neither terribly revealing nor terribly interesting, but still contains just enough memorable anecdotes and one-liners to give the Washington commentariat something to chew on for about a week.
This particular one, “Going the Distance” was in the New Yorker, written by David Remnick. He’s one of the magazine’s senior political reporters and the author of The Bridge, a bestselling political bio of Obama which posits that the man’s success has come mainly from his skill at mediating differences between rival factions (hence the title).
The bulk of “Going the Distance” tries hard to maintain that conclusion, though obviously evidence is now getting a tad scarce. In one defensive moment, Remnick forces Obama to basically admit that the whole “there’s no Red America or Blue America” trope was always a load of junk (it was merely supposed to be “aspirational”, backpeddles the President); in another he marvels at the ostentatiously sympathetic way Obama insists on characterizing Republican motives, “as if the unifying moment were still out there somewhere in the middle distance.” In any case, Remnick notes that the White House has largely given up on bipartisan dealmaking — “they maintain that they could invite every Republican in Congress to play golf until the end of time… and never cut the Gordian knot of contemporary Washington.” And it’s not because I suck at “schmoozing” adds the President, it’s because “there are some structural institutional realities to our political system” that no president can overcome.
Amid all the dour moping about the foreboding three years (can you believe it?) that still await the administration, two episodes of the Remnick piece have proven especially chatter-worthy.
The first, the subject of this toon, came during a passage on how horrible a year 2013 was for Obama, and how badly his poll numbers have slipped. Remnick observes that white voters seem particularly turned off, to which the man replies “there’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President.”
The right has predictably jumped all over this statement, calling it yet another tendentious Obama trip to the well of racial grievance whenever the going gets tough.
And not unjustly so.
Even if you accept the premise that a large portion of Obama-haters are motivated by little more than unvarnished racism (and I don’t), presumably this is the sort of thing that should remain static over time. We usually think of bigotry as a hateful prejudice you begin believing out of ignorance but ultimately evolve out of, yet for racism to be a plausible explanation for Obama’s steep approval slump among white voters — from 53% to 32% since 2009 — white America would somehow have to be getting more racist in open spite of their previous tolerance. As opposed to the Occam’s Razor explanation, which is that they have some manner of legitimate political grievance with some aspect of his agenda: NSA spying, Obamacare, the economy, whatever — a trend which would have the added benefit of also explaining the growing disillusion of the rest of America’s racial rainbow.
In fairness, Obama also conceded that “some black folks and maybe some white folks” remain loyal to him precisely because of race, but again, it’s not clear why a president should be spending any of his time thinking this way. The moment a politician convinces himself that large swatches of the electorate are fundamentally irrational in their perspectives — either for or against him — is the moment he willingly dismisses public opinion as a useful gauge for the justness of his policies.
Pressed to state a hard opinion on the dangers of the soft drug, Obama stated, that no, he didn’t think it was as bad as alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.” While sounding a sour note on the consumption of cannabis as a lifestyle choice — a “vice” and a “waste of time” were two phrases he used — the opinions expressed on the legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington were among his clearest to date. Legalization is not a “panacea,” he warned, but I still think it’s “important for it to go forward” in states that allow it, particularly if that means fewer destitute minorities will continue receiving those crazily disproportionate sentences we’re always hearing about.
Some libertarians and leftists have long peddled a myth that Obama has been “no different” on pot policy than any of his Republican predecessors, and to this day, the fact that marijuana possession remains a federal crime is often discussed as if it was something this White House dreamed up in a vacuum, as opposed to an inertia-backed inheritance of 1930s. Yet again and again, this president has sided with pro-legalization forces whenever given the chance, first with a 2009 decree from his attorney general that the feds would not crack down on the private, retail distribution of medical marijuana in states that had democratically chosen to allow it, and then, a few years later, with a similar announcement that no one in his administration was going to be rushing to quash fully legalized pot in CO and WA, either.
To the extent the president’s pot statements made anyone clutch their pearls, in short, it was simply those who haven’t been paying attention. But then again, as I wrote a while ago in a different context, the gradual chip-chip-chipping away of drug prohibition seems to be a phenomenon hardly anyone’s watching very closely.
It might not be entirely fair to the President to exert quite so much effort parsing elaborate meaning out of a few select sentences, yet as Remnick makes clear, Obama chooses his words with such painful precision it’s be hard not to. The man is a “spool of cautious lucidity” when being interviewed, Remnick says; in a New Yorker podcast he went even further and claimed you can practically see the President’s “heart rate slow down” when he speaks on the record, so careful is he.
Americans should never forget that one of the great strengths of their democracy is that their leaders are routinely willing to collaborate with journalists in long, investigative profiles of themselves. I recently finished reading a reasonably sympathetic book about Prime Minister Harper that’s nevertheless mainly sourced by idle speculation and off-the-record gossip, simply because the man just doesn’t like talking to reporters, and Canadian journalistic culture largely accepts this as reasonable. Much of what we know about Obama, by contrast — his values, principles, agendas, and goals — is sourced by open admissions from the guy himself.
At one point Remnick has Obama expressing skepticism about the so-called “great man” theory of history, the idea that monumental political and social changes ultimately originate from rulers, not the people. And while caution may be rightly warranted about such a single-cause thesis of politics, there’s still something to be said about a culture that encourages keeping such close watch on society’s great men just the same — monotonous though the chore may sometimes be.