I've spent a lot of time over the last six years observing President Obama and trying to understand him. From a personal standpoint, that's because I find him to be a fascinating human being. But from a political standpoint, I also think that he is a unique figure in our history. We have the benefit of living that history in the present moment rather than reading about it in books. It has been my passion to take it all in and try to understand what is happening.
Many people have commented that Barack Obama became a blank screen onto which people projected their own desires and fears. In watching the coverage of his presidency, I find that to be true. It has been frustrating to watch people simply put him into a pre-fabricated box of their own making rather than listen to what he says and watch what he does. On the extreme right, he has become the socialist demon and on the extreme left the corporate tool. That's what they expected and that's what they see. Every word uttered and every action taken is twisted in order to fit the mold. But those caricatures rarely bear any resemblance to the actual man who is our President. And so, whether you agree with him or not, disabusing ourselves of those projections and being open to who he actually is allows us to see the reality at play in this historical moment.
On a couple of occasions, journalists have attempted to approach President Obama with that kind of openness and given us a glimpse into the man they see. Such was the case when Michael Lewis was given extraordinary access and produced the article titled Obama's Way
. Recently, David Remnick
(author of The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
- which I recommend that everyone read) gave us another look. I'd like to take a few minutes to cull what I see as significant insights from that article.
First up, President Obama talks about race - both in the context of himself as well as its role in politics. On so many issues, we see the President make a both/and (rather than either/or) argument. But never more so than when it comes to this topic.
“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,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”
To my recollection, that is the first time I've heard President Obama acknowledge that race is a factor for some of his critics...a BFD! But notice that he immediately balances that with the idea that race also plays a role for some of his admirers. I imagine that this tendency of his to do the both/and is maddening to those who feel the very real anger of racism. But this is quintessential Obama, isn't it? He has been so steeped in the value of empathy that he rarely comes down on one side of an argument in righteous rage. His natural instinct seems to be to immediately place himself in the opposition's shoes in order to understand their perspective. Like it or not, if you're going to understand President Obama, this is one of the most important things to notice. Its the very thing that made his speech on race during the 2008 primaries
so unique...he wanted white people to understand what racism looked like from the perspective of African Americans. But he also wanted African Americans to understand what it looked like from a white working class perspective.
In reflecting on the office of the presidency, Obama talked about his reaction to watching the movie Lincoln
“The real politics resonated with me, because I have yet to see something that we’ve done, or any President has done, that was really important and good, that did not involve some mess and some strong-arming and some shading of how it was initially talked about to a particular member of the legislature who you needed a vote from. Because, if you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it—there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody. And so the nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.”
That reminded me of how President Obama talked about his North Star
early on in his presidency.
So, my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there, what is helping people live out their lives; what is giving them more opportunity; what is growing the economy; what is making us more competitive. At any given juncture there are going to be times that my preferred option, what I am absolutely, positively sure is right, I can’t get done. And so then, my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or that way because I am keeping my eye on the long-term and the long fight. Not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long-term.
As an example of how he keeps his focus on that North Star, Reminck relates this episode:
Last summer, he received a letter from a single mother struggling to support herself and her daughter on a minimal income. She was drowning: “I need help. I can’t imagine being out in the streets with my daughter and if I don’t get some type of relief soon, I’m afraid that’s what may happen.” “Copy to Senior Advisers,” Obama wrote at the bottom of the letter. “This is the person we are working for.”
Oh my! So much for the corporate tool argument. One can make the claim that President Obama's policies might not do enough to help this mother - that he's tacking too much - but he has consistently held to this priority. And in the end, he says that this is how he wants his presidency to be judged.
“I think we are fortunate at the moment that we do not face a crisis of the scale and scope that Lincoln or F.D.R. faced. So I think it’s unrealistic to suggest that I can narrow my focus the way those two Presidents did. But I can tell you that I will measure myself at the end of my Presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society.”
There is a lot of discussion in Remnick's article about foreign policy - specifically in the Middle east. On the topic of terrorism, he asks the President about the fact that Al Qaeda now appears to be in control of Falluja. Obama uses the opportunity to talk about how we need to alter the way we view terrorism post 9/11.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
This kind of nuanced thinking about the complexities involved in our response to terrorism is totally missed by those who claim that this administration is continuing the fear-mongering we were subjected to by Bush/Cheney. That distinction and nuance is carried on as the President talks about the use of drones.
“I think any President should be troubled by any war or any kinetic action that leads to death,” Obama told me when I brought up Yousafzai’s remarks. “The way I’ve thought about this issue is, I have a solemn duty and responsibility to keep the American people safe. That’s my most important obligation as President and Commander-in-Chief. And there are individuals and groups out there that are intent on killing Americans—killing American civilians, killing American children, blowing up American planes. That’s not speculation. It’s their explicit agenda.”
Obama said that, if terrorists can be captured and prosecuted, “that’s always my preference. If we can’t, I cannot stand by and do nothing. They operate in places where oftentimes we cannot reach them, or the countries are either unwilling or unable to capture them in partnership with us. And that then narrows my options: we can simply be on defense and try to harden our defense. But in this day and age that’s of limited—well, that’s insufficient. We can say to those countries, as my predecessor did, if you are harboring terrorists, we will hold you accountable—in which case, we could be fighting a lot of wars around the world. And, statistically, it is indisputable that the costs in terms of not only our men and women in uniform but also innocent civilians would be much higher. Or, where possible, we can take targeted strikes, understanding that anytime you take a military strike there are risks involved. What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions. But it’s not perfect.”
I find the statement I bolded most fascinating. It is often ignored when the President's critics accuse him of being just like (or worse than) Bush. President Obama acknowledges that his actions aren't perfect. But he wants us to think about the alternatives. Rather than invading whole countries because they harbor terrorists, he has chosen a different path. This is obviously something he has struggled with. And later on in this article, he sounds positively Niebuhrian
in how he talks about it.
“I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every President, like every person,” Obama said. “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that at the end of the day things will be better rather than worse.”
President Obama knows that even the leader of the free world has to keep his place in the scheme of things in perspective.
“One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as President is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” he later told me. “You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant...
“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Some people are suggesting that this represents a kind of resignation from President Obama that is in contrast to where he started six years ago. But I am reminded of how his wife Michelle
described his foray into politics way back in 2005.
Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.
President Obama's response upon hearing that description was to see it as a compliment. Certainly he's learned a thing or two about "the viability of politics to make change" in the last six years. But I'm also reminded of what he said exactly one year ago today
We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
This is a President who has always believed in the long game. Anyone who wants to understand him needs to at least get that one.