Friday, September 14, 2012

Putting yourself in the President's shoes

I just finished spending a good bit of time reading Michael Lewis' story in Vanity Fair titled Obama's Way and listening to Terry Gross interview Lewis about the article on NPR. It's a lengthy article and the interview is just shy of 40 minutes. But I want to tell you that both were more than worth the time I've spent reading and listening to them.

As background for the article, Lewis spent time observing and interacting with President Obama over the course of six months. This is something that had never been done with an American president before. His reason for wanting to do so - as he explains on NPR - was to allow the reader to put themselves in the President's shoes. That's something I try to do in my head all the time. I'm sure Lewis only captured bits and pieces of what its like to see the world through the President's eyes. But its one of the most thorough pictures I've seen so far.

Some people have criticized Lewis because, as part of the deal, he gave the White House the ability to review and approve of direct quotes included in the story. He addresses that criticism right off the bat in the interview on NPR. First of all, he points out that this is common practice when writing biographical stories about famous people. Secondly, he says that after submitting the quotes that would be included, the White House changed almost nothing. And finally, he points out that the meat of the article is actually more about his observations after spending time with the President. That is not something he gave the White House the opportunity to review.

I would simply add that he's been very up front about all this. And so readers are left to make their own determination about the content.

Lewis uses three events as the mainstays of what he writes games with the President, his process for writing the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and most prominently - the decision to intervene in Libya. But sometimes its the casual conversations they had that are most revealing. As an example, at one point Lewis asked President Obama how he dealt with the constant criticism. His response strikes me as something important for all of us to hear.
One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you.
I'd suggest this is something that is not limited to our views about President Obama. But I also suspect its more intensified in his case. For those with a vested interest in the bad - that's the character they see. And for those of us who support him - we tend to ignore the imperfections and create a heroic character. But if your'e actually "in his shoes," you know yourself to be a human being who is capable of doing good things with all the limitations mere mortals must endure.

Describing the challenges that face any President, Obama repeats something we've heard Michelle talk about before.
“Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”
This says several things to me. First of all, it speaks to the Niebuhrian idea that we have to live in the world as it is and not as we want it to be. You have to take the risk of a 30-40 percent chance of failure. Secondly, it explains why pragmatism must be the cornerstone rather than ideology. As Obama says, you are able to take those kinds of risks if you feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. And finally, that's why the kind of information we get from an article like this is so useful in evaluating a president...beyond simple policy statements, it shows the person's process.

If you want to get a glimpse into the world of President Obama, I highly recommend that you read this article and listen to the interview. The rest of it is too full of fascinating information to summarize adequately. I'll simply say that it confirms to me what a thoughtful, capable man we have in the White House.

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