have always been two not entirely consistent elements of Barack Obama’s
powerful political appeal: his aspirational ambition and his personal sense of
complexity and limits.
aspirational — the promise of transcending our national divisions, resetting
our relations with Russia and the Muslim world, slowing the rise of the oceans
and healing the planet — is behind us. In a recent, remarkable interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, Obama admits as much. Assuming the role of
political commentator, the president talks of being overexposed “after six, seven
years of me being on the national stage” and asks, “Is there somebody else out
there who can give [people] that spark of inspiration or excitement?” Perhaps
someone else is the change we have been waiting for.
is exactly this objectivity — this ability to emotionally distance himself
from, well, himself — that impresses many journalists and commentators. Remnick
calls it the “archetypal Obama habit of mind and politics, the calm,
professorial immersion in complexity.” Like many before him, Remnick is
impressed with Obama’s “philosophical ambivalences” and his ability to “nimbly”
argue the other side of debates.
seems impressed with these traits as well. In the course of the interview, he
states: “I’m not a purist.” And: “I’m pretty pragmatic.” And: “I’m not a
particularly ideological person.” And: “I do think one of my strengths is
temperament. I am comfortable with complexity.” On marijuana legalization,
Obama convincingly argues for every possible side of the issue. On parenting,
he favors both open-mindedness and structure. On federalism, he sees virtues
and drawbacks. On pro football, he is a big fan but would not allow his son to
play. Every question is an opportunity for a seminar.
to admit — like many people in the business of producing and distributing
symbolic knowledge — that I love seminars. Writers, commentators, journalists
and historians have often chosen their profession because they never wanted
their late-night dorm room discussions to end. Those who write about politics
have a natural affinity for Obama’s mode of discourse. This is not so much an
ideological bias — though that can play a part — as a kinship of intellectual
approach and style. Just as Middle America found Richard Nixon to be “one of
us,” America’s knowledge class knows that Obama is very much like them.
portrait of Obama typically leaves out the less attractive side of the academic
persona — the tendency to view opponents as rubes and knaves. Few presidents
have more consistently or aggressively questioned the motives of their
political rivals. None, to my knowledge, used an inaugural address the way
Obama used his second — to accuse his opponents of mistaking “absolutism for
principle” and treating “name-calling as reasoned debate,” and wanting the
twilight years of seniors “spent in poverty” and ensuring that parents of
disabled children have “nowhere to turn,” and reserving freedom “for the
lucky.” Those outside the seminar aren’t treated quite as well.
even judged on the terms of Remnick’s praise, Obama is in deep, second-term
trouble. The president who embraces complexity is now besieged by complexity on
every front. The U.S. health-care system has not responded as planned to the
joystick manipulations of the Affordable Care Act. On the evidence of the
article, Obama and his closest advisers are in denial about the structural
failures of the program — the stingy coverage, narrow provider networks, high
deductibles and adverse-selection spirals already underway in several states.
complexity is not a sufficient word to describe the chaos in the Middle East.
Here Remnick raises questions about the utility of ambivalence in Obama’s
approach to Syria. In the article, the president recounts the careful,
systematic study that preceded inaction, as more than 100,000 people died and
U.S.-affiliated groups were crushed. “We have looked at this from every angle,”
fact, at the outset of the struggle, Obama declared that Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad must go without having a plan to make him go. Then the Obama
administration announced it would supply arms to the rebels, which never materialized on a serious scale. This is a case where disengagement has
undermined national credibility and betrayed friends. Obama is likely to spend
a portion of his post-presidency defending his studied inaction in the face of
largest question raised by the Remnick article goes unasked: Is the
intellectual style that journalists find so amenable actually an effective
governing strategy? The answer, it turns out, is complex.