“Yes, we can!” has devolved into “Hey, we might.”
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Annals of the Presidency
Going the Distance
On and off the road with Barack Obama.
by David Remnick January 27, 2014
Obama’s Presidency is on the clock. Hard as it has been to pass legislation, the coming year is a marker, the final interval before the fight for succession becomes politically all-consuming.
On the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving, Barack Obama sat in the office cabin of Air Force One wearing a look of heavy-lidded annoyance. The Affordable Care Act, his signature domestic achievement and, for all its limitations, the most ambitious social legislation since the Great Society, half a century ago, was in jeopardy. His approval rating was down to forty per cent—lower than George W. Bush’s in December of 2005, when Bush admitted that the decision to invade Iraq had been based on intelligence that “turned out to be wrong.” Also, Obama said thickly, “I’ve got a fat lip.”
That morning, while playing basketball at F.B.I. headquarters, Obama went up for a rebound and came down empty-handed; he got, instead, the sort of humbling reserved for middle-aged men who stubbornly refuse the transition to the elliptical machine and Gentle Healing Yoga. This had happened before. In 2010, after taking a self-described “shellacking” in the midterm elections, Obama caught an elbow in the mouth while playing ball at Fort McNair. He wound up with a dozen stitches. The culprit then was one Reynaldo Decerega, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Decerega wasn’t invited to play again, though Obama sent him a photograph inscribed “For Rey, the only guy that ever hit the President and didn’t get arrested. Barack.”
This time, the injury was slighter and no assailant was named—“I think it was the ball,” Obama said—but the President needed little assistance in divining the metaphor in this latest insult to his person. The pundits were declaring 2013 the worst year of his Presidency. The Republicans had been sniping at Obamacare since its passage, nearly four years earlier, and HealthCare.gov, a Web site that was undertested and overmatched, was a gift to them. There were other beribboned boxes under the tree: Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency; the failure to get anything passed on gun control or immigration reform; the unseemly waffling over whether the Egyptian coup was a coup; the solidifying wisdom in Washington that the President was “disengaged,” allergic to the forensic and seductive arts of political persuasion. The congressional Republicans quashed nearly all legislation as a matter of principle and shut down the government for sixteen days, before relenting out of sheer tactical confusion and embarrassment—and yet it was the President’s miseries that dominated the year-end summations.
Obama worried his lip with his tongue and the tip of his index finger. He sighed, slumping in his chair. The night before, Iran had agreed to freeze its nuclear program for six months. A final pact, if one could be arrived at, would end the prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the hell that could follow: terror attacks, proxy battles, regional war—take your pick. An agreement could even help normalize relations between the United States and Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. Obama put the odds of a final accord at less than even, but, still, how was this not good news?
The answer had arrived with breakfast. The Saudis, the Israelis, and the Republican leadership made their opposition known on the Sunday-morning shows and through diplomatic channels. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, called the agreement a “historic mistake.” Even a putative ally like New York Senator Chuck Schumer could go on “Meet the Press” and, fearing no retribution from the White House, hint that he might help bollix up the deal. Obama hadn’t tuned in. “I don’t watch Sunday-morning shows,” he said. “That’s been a well-established rule.” Instead, he went out to play ball.
Usually, Obama spends Sundays with his family. Now he was headed for a three-day fund-raising trip to Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, rattling the cup in one preposterous mansion after another. The prospect was dispiriting. Obama had already run his last race, and the chances that the Democratic Party will win back the House of Representatives in the 2014 midterm elections are slight. The Democrats could, in fact, lose the Senate.
For an important trip abroad, Air Force One is crowded with advisers, military aides, Secret Service people, support staff, the press pool. This trip was smaller, and I was along for the ride, sitting in a guest cabin with a couple of aides and a staffer who was tasked with keeping watch over a dark suit bag with a tag reading “The President.”
Obama spent his flight time in the private quarters in the nose of the plane, in his office compartment, or in a conference room. At one point on the trip from Andrews Air Force Base to Seattle, I was invited up front for a conversation. Obama was sitting at his desk watching the Miami Dolphins–Carolina Panthers game. Slender as a switch, he wore a white shirt and dark slacks; a flight jacket was slung over his high-backed leather chair. As we talked, mainly about the Middle East, his eyes wandered to the game. Reports of multiple concussions and retired players with early-onset dementia had been in the news all year, and so, before I left, I asked if he didn’t feel at all ambivalent about following the sport. He didn’t.
“I would not let my son play pro football,” he conceded. “But, I mean, you wrote a lot about boxing, right? We’re sort of in the same realm.”
The Miami defense was taking on a Keystone Kops quality, and Obama, who had lost hope on a Bears contest, was starting to lose interest in the Dolphins. “At this point, there’s a little bit of caveat emptor,” he went on. “These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”
Obama chewed furtively on a piece of Nicorette. His carriage and the cadence of his conversation are usually so measured that I was thrown by the lingering habit, the trace of indiscipline. “I’m not a purist,” he said.
I—ON THE CLOCK
When Obama leaves the White House, on January 20, 2017, he will write a memoir. “Now, that’s a slam dunk,” the former Obama adviser David Axelrod told me. Andrew Wylie, a leading literary agent, said he thought that publishers would pay between seventeen and twenty million dollars for the book—the most ever for a work of nonfiction—and around twelve million for Michelle Obama’s memoirs. (The First Lady has already started work on hers.) Obama’s best friend, Marty Nesbitt, a Chicago businessman, told me that, important as the memoir might be to Obama’s legacy and to his finances, “I don’t see him locked up in a room writing all the time. His capacity to crank stuff out is amazing. When he was writing his second book, he would say, ‘I’m gonna get up at seven and write this chapter—and at nine we’ll play golf.’ I would think no, it’s going to be a lot later, but he would knock on my door at nine and say, ‘Let’s go.’ ” Nesbitt thinks that Obama will work on issues such as human rights, education, and “health and wellness.” “He was a local community organizer when he was young,” he said. “At the back end of his career, I see him as an international and national community organizer.”
Yet no post-Presidential project—even one as worthy as Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs or Jimmy Carter’s efforts to eradicate the Guinea worm in Africa—can overshadow what can be accomplished in the White House with the stroke of a pen or a phone call. And, after a miserable year, Obama’s Presidency is on the clock. Hard as it has been to pass legislation since the Republicans took the House, in 2010, the coming year is a marker, the final interval before the fight for succession becomes politically all-consuming.
“The conventional wisdom is that a President’s second term is a matter of minimizing the damage and playing defense rather than playing offense,” Obama said in one of our conversations on the trip and at the White House. “But, as I’ve reminded my team, the day after I was inaugurated for a second term, we’re in charge of the largest organization on earth, and our capacity to do some good, both domestically and around the world, is unsurpassed, even if nobody is paying attention.”
In 2007, at the start of Obama’s Presidential campaign, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband, Richard Goodwin, who worked in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, visited him in his Senate office. “I have no desire to be one of those Presidents who are just on the list—you see their pictures lined up on the wall,” Obama told them. “I really want to be a President who makes a difference.” As she put it to me then, “There was the sense that he wanted to be big. He didn’t want to be Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce.”
The question is whether Obama will satisfy the standard he set for himself. His biggest early disappointment as President was being forced to recognize that his romantic vision of a post-partisan era, in which there are no red states or blue states, only the United States, was, in practical terms, a fantasy. It was a difficult fantasy to relinquish. The spirit of national conciliation was more than the rhetorical pixie dust of Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, in Boston, which had brought him to delirious national attention. It was also an elemental component of his self-conception, his sense that he was uniquely suited to transcend ideology and the grubby battles of the day. Obama is defensive about this now. “My speech in Boston was an aspirational speech,” he said. “It was not a description of our politics. It was a description of what I saw in the American people.”
The structures of American division came into high relief once he was in office. The debate over the proper scale and scope of the federal government dates to the Founders, but it has intensified since the Reagan revolution. Both Bill Clinton and Obama have spent as much time defending progressive advances—from Social Security and Medicare to voting rights and abortion rights—as they have trying to extend them. The Republican Party is living through the late-mannerist phase of that revolution, fuelled less by ideas than by resentments. The moderate Republican tradition is all but gone, and the reactionaries who claim Reagan’s banner display none of his ideological finesse. Rejection is all. Obama can never be opposed vehemently enough.
The dream of bipartisan coöperation glimmered again after Obama won reëlection against Mitt Romney with fifty-one per cent of the popular vote. The President talked of the election breaking the “fever” in Washington. “We didn’t expect the floodgates would open and Boehner would be Tip O’Neill to our Reagan,” Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to the President, said. But reëlection, he thought, had “liberated” Obama. The second Inaugural Address was the most liberal since the nineteen-sixties. Obama pledged to take ambitious action on climate change, immigration, gun control, voting rights, infrastructure, tax reform. He warned of a nation at “perpetual war.” He celebrated the Seneca Falls Convention, the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, and the Stonewall riots as events in a narrative of righteous struggle. He pledged “collective action” on economic fairness, and declared that the legacy of Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid does “not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” Pfeiffer said, “His point was that Congress won’t set the limits of what I will do. I won’t trim my vision. And, even if I can’t get it done, I will set the stage so it does get done” in the years ahead. Then came 2013, annus horribilis.
Obama’s election was one of the great markers in the black freedom struggle. In the electoral realm, ironically, the country may be more racially divided than it has been in a generation. Obama lost among white voters in 2012 by a margin greater than any victor in American history. The popular opposition to the Administration comes largely from older whites who feel threatened, underemployed, overlooked, and disdained in a globalized economy and in an increasingly diverse country. Obama’s drop in the polls in 2013 was especially grave among white voters. “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.” The latter group has been less in evidence of late.
“There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues,” he went on. “You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government—that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable—and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states’ rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy.”
Obama’s advisers are convinced that if the Republicans don’t find a way to attract non-white voters, particularly Hispanics and Asians, they may lose the White House for two or three more election cycles. And yet Obama still makes every effort to maintain his careful, balancing tone, as if the unifying moment were still out there somewhere in the middle distance. “There were times in our history where Democrats didn’t seem to be paying enough attention to the concerns of middle-class folks or working-class folks, black or white,” he said. “And this was one of the great gifts of Bill Clinton to the Party—to say, you know what, it’s entirely legitimate for folks to be concerned about getting mugged, and you can’t just talk about police abuse. How about folks not feeling safe outside their homes? It’s all fine and good for you to want to do something about poverty, but if the only mechanism you have is raising taxes on folks who are already feeling strapped, then maybe you need to widen your lens a little bit. And I think that the Democratic Party is better for it. But that was a process. And I am confident that the Republicans will go through that same process.”
For the moment, though, the opposition party is content to define itself, precisely, by its opposition. As Obama, a fan of the “Godfather” movies, has put it, “It turns out Marlon Brando had it easy, because, when it comes to Congress, there is no such thing as an offer they can’t refuse.”
II—THE LONG VIEW
At dusk, Air Force One touched down at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Obama and his adviser Valerie Jarrett stood for a moment on the tarmac gazing at Mt. Rainier, the snow a candied pink. Then Obama nodded. Moment over. They got in the car and headed for town. Obama’s limousine, a Cadillac said to weigh as much as fifteen thousand pounds, is known as the Beast. It is armored with ceramic, titanium, aluminum, and steel to withstand bomb blasts, and it is sealed in case of biochemical attack. The doors are as heavy as those on a Boeing 757. The tires are gigantic “run-flats,” reinforced with Kevlar. A supply of blood matching the President’s type is kept in the trunk.
The Beast ascended the driveway of Jon Shirley, in the Seattle suburb of Medina, on Lake Washington. (Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates live in town, too.) Shirley earned his pile during the early days of high tech, first at Tandy and then, in the eighties, at Microsoft, where he served as president. Shirley’s lawn is littered with gargantuan modern sculptures. A Claes Oldenburg safety pin loomed in the dark. The Beast pulled up to Shirley’s front door.
One of the enduring mysteries of the Obama years is that so many members of the hyper-deluxe economy—corporate C.E.O.s and Wall Street bankers—have abandoned him. The Dow is more than twice what it was when Obama took office, in 2009; corporate profits are higher than they have been since the end of the Second World War; the financial crisis of 2008-09 vaporized more than nine trillion dollars in real-estate value, and no major purveyor of bogus mortgages or dodgy derivatives went to jail. Obama bruised some feelings once or twice with remarks about “fat-cat bankers” and “reckless behavior and unchecked excess,” but, in general, he dares not offend. In 2011, at an annual dinner he holds at the White House with American historians, he asked the group to help him find a language in which he could address the problem of growing inequality without being accused of class warfare.
Inside Shirley’s house, blue-chip works of modern art—paintings, sculpture, installations—were on every wall, in every corner: Katz, Kline, Klein, Pollock, Zhang Huan, Richter, Arp, Rothko, Close, Calder. The house measures more than twenty-seven thousand square feet. There are only two bedrooms. In the library, the President went through a familiar fund-raiser routine: a pre-event private “clutch,” where he shakes hands, makes small talk, and poses for pictures with an inner group—the host, the governor, the chosen.
Down the hall, in a room scaled like an airplane hangar, about seventy guests, having paid sixteen thousand dollars each to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee kitty, ate dinner and waited. Near some very artistic furniture, I stood with Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s most intimate consigliere. To admirers, Jarrett is known as “the third Obama”; to wary aides, who envy her long history with the Obamas and her easy access to the living quarters of the White House, she is the Night Stalker. Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe, and many others in the Administration have clashed with her. They are gone. She remains—a constant presence, at meetings, at meals, in the Beast. While we were waiting for Obama to speak to the group, I asked Jarrett whether the health-care rollout had been the worst political fiasco Obama had confronted so far.
“I really don’t think so,” she said. Like all Obama advisers, she was convinced that the problems would get “fixed”—just as Social Security was fixed after a balky start, in 1937—and the memory of the botched rollout would recede. That was the hope and that was the spin. And then she said something that I’ve come to think of as the Administration’s mantra: “The President always takes the long view.”
That appeal to patience and historical reckoning, an appeal that risks a maddening high-mindedness, is something that everyone around Obama trots out to combat the hysterias of any given moment. “He has learned through those vicissitudes that every day is Election Day in Washington and everyone is writing history in ten-minute intervals,” Axelrod told me. “But the truth is that history is written over a long period of time—and he will be judged in the long term.”
Obama stepped up to a platform and went to work. First ingratiation, then gratitude, then answers. He expressed awe at the sight of Mt. Rainier. Being in Seattle, he said, made him “feel the spirit of my mom,” the late Ann Dunham, who went to high school nearby, on Mercer Island. He praised his host’s hospitality. (“The only problem when I come to Jon’s house is I want to just kind of roam around and check stuff out, and instead I’ve got to talk.”) Then came a version of the long-game riff: “One thing that I always try to emphasize is that, if you look at American history, there have been frequent occasions in which it looked like we had insoluble problems—either economic, political, security—and, as long as there were those who stayed steady and clear-eyed and persistent, eventually we came up with an answer.”
As Obama ticked off a list of first-term achievements—the economic rescue, the forty-four straight months of job growth, a reduction in carbon emissions, a spike in clean-energy technology—he seemed efficient but contained, running at three-quarters speed, like an athlete playing a midseason road game of modest consequence; he was performing just hard enough to leave a decent impression, get paid, and avoid injury. Even in front of West Coast liberals, he is always careful to disavow liberalism—the word, anyway. “I’m not a particularly ideological person,” Obama told Jon Shirley and his guests. “There’s things, some values I feel passionately about.” He said that these included making sure that everybody is “being treated with dignity or respect regardless of what they look like or what their last name is or who they love,” providing a strong defense, and “leaving a planet that is as spectacular as the one we inherited from our parents and our grandparents.” He continued, “So there are values I’m passionate about, but I’m pretty pragmatic when it comes to how we get there.”
Obama said he’d take some questions—in “boy, girl, boy, girl” order. He tried to rally the Democrats and expressed dismay with the opposition. (“There are reasonable conservatives and there are those who just want to burn down the house.”) He played both sides of the environment issues, rehearsing the arguments for and against the Keystone pipeline and sympathizing with the desire of China and India to lift millions out of poverty—but if they consume energy the way the United States has “we’ll be four feet under water.” This is the archetypal Obama habit of mind and politics, the calm, professorial immersion in complexity played out in front of ardent supporters who crave a rallying cry. It’s what compelled him to declare himself a non-pacifist as he was accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, in Oslo, and praise Ronald Reagan in a Democratic primary debate.
And that was the end of the performance. A few minutes later, the motorcade was snaking through the streets of suburban Seattle—kids in pajamas holding signs and sparklers, the occasional protester, Obama secured in the back seat of the Beast. He could hear nothing. The windows of his car are five inches thick.
The next morning, a Monday, I woke early and turned on CNN. Senator Lindsey Graham, who is facing a primary challenge from four Tea Party candidates in South Carolina, was saying with utter confidence that Iran had hoodwinked the Administration in Geneva. Next came a poll showing that the majority of the country now believed that the President was neither truthful nor honest. The announcer added with a smile that GQ had put Obama at No. 17 on its “least influential” list—right up there with Pope Benedict XVI in his retirement, the cicadas that never showed up last summer, and Manti Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend.
In the hotel lobby, I met Jeff Tiller, who works for the White House press operation. In college, he became interested in politics and later joined Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign. From there, he volunteered at the White House, which led to a string of staff jobs, and eventually he was doing advance work all over the world for the White House. The aides on the plane were like Tiller—committed members of a cheerful, overworked microculture who could barely conceal their pleasure in Presidential propinquity. I’m twenty-seven and this is my thirty-second time on Air Force One. “I pinch myself sometimes,” Tiller said. Dan Pfeiffer, who has been with Obama since 2007, was so overworked last year that he suffered a series of mini-strokes. “But no worries,” he told me. “I’m good!”
We arrived in San Francisco, and the motorcade raced along, free of traffic and red lights, from the airport to a community center in Chinatown named after Betty Ong, a flight attendant who perished when American Airlines Flight 11 was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center. Obama was to give a speech on immigration. Out the window, you could see people waving, people hoisting their babies as if to witness history, people holding signs protesting one issue or another—the Keystone pipeline, especially—and, everywhere, the iPhone clickers, the Samsung snappers.
The Beast pulled under a makeshift security tent. Obama gets to events like these through underground hallways, industrial kitchens, holding rooms—all of which have been checked for bombs. At the Ong Center, he met with his hosts and their children. (“I think I have some Presidential M&M’s for you!”) People get goggle-eyed when it’s their turn for a picture. Obama tries to put them at ease: “C’mon in here! Let’s do this!” Sometimes there is teasing of the mildest sort: “Chuck Taylor All-Stars! Old style, baby!” A woman told the President that she was six months pregnant. She didn’t look it. “Whoa! Don’t tell that to Michelle. She’ll be all . . .” The woman said she was having a girl. Obama was delighted: “Daughters! You can’t beat ’em!” He pulled her in for the photo. From long experience, Obama has learned what works for him in pictures: a broad, toothy smile. A millisecond after the flash, the sash releases, the smile drops, a curtain falling.
A little later, Betty Ong’s mother and siblings arrived. Obama drew them into a huddle. I heard him saying that Betty was a hero, though “obviously, the heartache never goes away.” Obama really is skilled at this kind of thing, the kibbitzing and the expressions of sympathy, the hugging and the eulogizing and the celebrating, the sheer animal activity of human politics—but he suffers an anxiety of comparison. Bill Clinton was, and is, the master, a hyper-extrovert whose freakish memory for names and faces, and whose indomitable will to enfold and charm everyone in his path, remains unmatched. Obama can be a dynamic speaker before large audiences and charming in very small groups, but, like a normal human being and unlike the near-pathological personalities who have so often held the office, he is depleted by the act of schmoozing a group of a hundred as if it were an intimate gathering. At fund-raisers, he would rather eat privately with a couple of aides before going out to perform. According to the Wall Street Journal, when Jeffrey Katzenberg threw a multi-million-dollar fund-raiser in Los Angeles two years ago, he told the President’s staff that he expected Obama to stop at each of the fourteen tables and talk for a while. No one would have had to ask Clinton. Obama’s staffers were alarmed. When you talk about this with people in Obamaland, they let on that Clinton borders on the obsessive—as if the appetite for connection were related to what got him in such deep trouble.
“Obama is a genuinely respectful person, but he doesn’t try to seduce everyone,” Axelrod said. “It’s never going to be who he’ll be.” Obama doesn’t love fund-raising, he went on, “and, if you don’t love it in the first place, you’re not likely to grow fonder of it over time.”
Obama has other talents that serve him well in public. Like a seasoned standup comedian, he has learned that a well-timed heckler can be his ally. It allows him to dramatize his open-mindedness, even his own philosophical ambivalences about a particularly difficult political or moral question. Last May, at the National Defense University, where he was giving a speech on counter-terrorism, a woman named Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of the group Code Pink, interrupted him, loudly and at length, to talk about drone strikes and about closing the American prison at Guantánamo Bay. While some in the audience tried to drown her out with applause, and security people proceeded to drag her away, Obama asserted Benjamin’s right to “free speech,” and declared, “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.”
At the Ong Center, an undocumented immigrant from South Korea named Ju Hong was in the crowd lined up behind the President. Toward the end of Obama’s speech, Ju Hong, a Berkeley graduate, broke in, demanding that the President use his executive powers to stop deportations.
Obama wheeled around. “If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so, but we’re also a nation of laws,” he said, making his case to a wash of applause.
At the next event, a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee at a music venue, the SFJAZZ Center, Obama met the host’s family (“Hold on, we got some White House M&M’s”) and then made his way to the backstage holding area. You could hear the murmur of security communications: “Renegade with greeters”—Renegade being Obama’s Secret Service handle.
Obama worked with more enthusiasm than at the midday event. He did the polite handshake; the full pull-in; the hug and double backslap; the slap-shake; the solicitous arm-around-the-older woman. (“And you stand here. . . . Perfect!”)
The clutch over, the crowd cleared away, Obama turned to his aides and said, “How many we got out there?”
“Five hundred. Five-fifty.”
“Five-fifty?” Obama said, walking toward the wings of the stage. “What are we talking about? Politics? Can’t we talk about something else? Sports?”
The aides were, as ever, staring down at their iPhones, scrolling, tapping, mentally occupying a psychic space somewhere between where they were and the unspooling news cycle back in Washington.
“We’re off the cuff,” Pfeiffer said. No prepared speech.
“Off the cuff? Sounds good. Let’s go do it.”
Obama walked toward the stage and, as he was announced, he mouthed the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”
Then it happened again: another heckler broke into Obama’s speech. A man in the balcony repeatedly shouted out, “Executive order!,” demanding that the President bypass Congress with more unilateral actions. Obama listened with odd indulgence. Finally, he said, “I’m going to actually pause on this issue, because a lot of people have been saying this lately on every problem, which is just, ‘Sign an executive order and we can pretty much do anything and basically nullify Congress.’ ”
Many in the crowd applauded their approval. Yes! Nullify it! Although Obama has infuriated the right with relatively modest executive orders on gun control and some stronger ones on climate change, he has issued the fewest of any modern President, except George H. W. Bush.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Obama said. “Before everybody starts clapping, that’s not how it works. We’ve got this Constitution, we’ve got this whole thing about separation of powers. So there is no shortcut to politics, and there’s no shortcut to democracy.” The applause was hardly ecstatic. Everyone knew what he meant. The promises in the second inaugural could be a long time coming.
IV—THE WELCOME TABLE
For every flight aboard Air Force One, there is a new name card at each seat; a catalogue of the Presidential Entertainment Library, with its hiply curated choices of movies and music; baskets of fruit and candy; a menu. Obama is generally a spare eater; the Air Force One menu seems designed for William Howard Taft. Breakfast one morning was “pumpkin spiced French toast drizzled with caramel syrup and a dollop of fresh whipped cream. Served with scrambled eggs and maple sausage links.” Plus juice, coffee, and, on the side, a “creamy vanilla yogurt layered with blackberries and cinnamon graham crackers.”
The most curious character on the plane was Marvin Nicholson, a tall, rangy man in his early forties who works as the President’s trip director and ubiquitous factotum. He is six feet eight. Nicholson is the guy who is always around, who carries the bag and the jacket, who squeezes Purell onto the Presidential palms after a rope line or a clutch; he is the one who has the pens, the briefing books, the Nicorette, the Sharpies, the Advil, the throat lozenges, the iPad, the iPod, the protein bars, the bottle of Black Forest Berry Honest Tea. He and the President toss a football around, they shoot baskets, they shoot the shit. In his twenties, Nicholson was living in Boston and working as a bartender and as a clerk in a windsurfing-equipment shop, where he met John Kerry. He moved to Nantucket and worked as a caddie. He carried the Senator’s clubs and Kerry invited him to come to D.C. Since taking the job with Obama, in 2009, Nicholson has played golf with the President well over a hundred times. The Speaker of the House has played with him once.
A fact like this can seem to chime with the sort of complaints you hear all the time about Obama, particularly along the Acela Corridor. He is said to be a reluctant politician: aloof, insular, diffident, arrogant, inert, unwilling to jolly his allies along the fairway and take a 9-iron to his enemies. He doesn’t know anyone in Congress. No one in the House or in the Senate, no one in foreign capitals fears him. He gives a great speech, but he doesn’t understand power. He is a poor executive. Doesn’t it seem as if he hates the job? And so on. This is the knowing talk on Wall Street, on K Street, on Capitol Hill, in green rooms—the “Morning Joe” consensus.
There are other ways to assess the political skills of a President who won two terms, as only seventeen of forty-four Presidents have, and did so as a black man, with an African father and a peculiar name, one consonant away from that of the world’s most notorious terrorist. From the start, however, the political operatives who opposed him did what they are paid to do—they drew a cartoon of him. “Even if you never met him, you know this guy,” Karl Rove said, in 2008. “He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a Martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.” The less malign version is of a President who is bafflingly serene, as committed to his duties as a husband and father—six-thirty family dinner upstairs in the private residence is considered “sacrosanct,” aides say—as he is to his duties as Cajoler-in-Chief.
Still, Obama’s reluctance to break bread on a regular basis with his congressional allies is real, and a source of tribal mystification in Washington. “Politics was a strange career choice for Obama,” David Frum, a conservative columnist, told me. “Most politicians are not the kind of people you would choose to have as friends. Or they are the kind who, like John Edwards, seem to be one thing but then turn out to have a monster in the attic; the friendship is contingent on something you can’t see. Obama is exactly like all my friends. He would rather read a book than spend time with people he doesn’t know or like.” Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia who was elected to the Senate three years ago, said recently that Obama’s distance from members of Congress has hurt his ability to pass legislation. “When you don’t build those personal relationships,” Manchin told CNN, “it’s pretty easy for a person to say, ‘Well, let me think about it.’ ”
Harry Truman once called the White House “the great white jail,” but few Presidents seem to have felt as oppressed by Washington as Obama does. At one stop on the West Coast trip, Marta Kauffman, a Democratic bundler who was one of the creators of “Friends,” said that she asked him what had surprised him most when he first became President. “The bubble,” Obama said. He said he hoped that one day he might be able to take a walk in the park, drop by a bookstore, chat with people in a coffee shop. “After all this is done,” he said, “how can I find that again?”
“Have you considered a wig?” she asked.
“Maybe fake dreads,” her son added.
The President smiled. “I never thought of that,” he said.
Obama’s circle of intimates is limited; it has been since his days at Columbia and Harvard Law. In 2008, Obama called on John Podesta, who had worked extensively for Bill Clinton, to run his transition process. When Clinton took office, there was a huge list of people who needed to be taken care of with jobs; the “friends of Bill” is a wide network. After Podesta talked to Obama and realized how few favors had to be distributed, he told a colleague, “He travels light.”
Obama’s favorite company is a small ensemble of Chicago friends—Valerie Jarrett, Marty Nesbitt and his wife, Anita Blanchard, an obstetrician, and Eric and Cheryl Whitaker, prominent doctors on the South Side. During the first Presidential campaign, the Obamas took a vow of “no new friends.”
“There have been times where I’ve been constrained by the fact that I had two young daughters who I wanted to spend time with—and that I wasn’t in a position to work the social scene in Washington,” Obama told me. But, as Malia and Sasha have grown older, the Obamas have taken to hosting occasional off-the-record dinners in the residence upstairs at the White House. The guests ordinarily include a friendly political figure, a business leader, a journalist. Obama drinks a Martini or two (Rove was right about that), and he and the First Lady are welcoming, funny, and warm. The dinners start at six. At around ten-thirty at one dinner last spring, the guests assumed the evening was winding down. But when Obama was asked whether they should leave, he laughed and said, “Hey, don’t go! I’m a night owl! Have another drink.” The party went on past 1 A.M.
At the dinners with historians, Obama sometimes asks his guests to talk about their latest work. On one occasion, Doris Kearns Goodwin talked about what became “The Bully Pulpit,” which is a study, in part, of the way that Theodore Roosevelt deployed his relentlessly gregarious personality and his close relations with crusading journalists to political advantage. The portrait of T.R. muscling obstreperous foes on the issue of inequality—particularly the laissez-faire dinosaurs in his own party, the G.O.P.—couldn’t fail to summon a contrasting portrait.
The biographer Robert Caro has also been a guest. Caro’s ongoing volumes about Lyndon Johnson portray a President who used everything from the promise of appointment to bald-faced political threats to win passage of the legislative agenda that had languished under John Kennedy, including Medicare, a tax cut, and a civil-rights bill. Publicly, Johnson said of Kennedy, “I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.” Privately, he disdained Kennedy’s inability to get his program through Congress, cracking, according to Caro, that Kennedy’s men knew less about politics on the Hill “than an old maid does about fucking.” Senator Richard Russell, Jr., of Georgia, admitted that he and his Dixiecrat colleagues in the Senate could resist Kennedy “but not Lyndon”: “That man will twist your arm off at the shoulder and beat your head in with it.”
Obama delivers no such beatings. Last April, when, in the wake of the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, eighty-three per cent of Americans declared themselves in favor of background checks for gun purchases, the Times ran a prominent article making the case that the Senate failed to follow the President’s lead at least partly because of his passivity as a tactical politician. It described how Mark Begich, a Democratic senator from Alaska, had asked for, and received, a crucial favor from the White House, but then, four weeks later, when Begich voted against the bill on background checks, he paid no price. No one shut down any highway lanes in Anchorage; no Presidential fury was felt in Juneau or the Brooks Range. The historian Robert Dallek, another guest at the President’s table, told the Times that Obama was “inclined to believe that sweet reason is what you need to use with people in high office.”
Yet Obama and his aides regard all such talk of breaking bread and breaking legs as wishful fantasy. They maintain that they could invite every Republican in Congress to play golf until the end of time, could deliver punishments with ruthless regularity—and never cut the Gordian knot of contemporary Washington. They have a point. An Alaska Democrat like Begich would never last in office had he voted with Obama. L.B.J., elected in a landslide victory in 1964, drew on whopping majorities in both houses of Congress. He could exploit ideological diversity within the parties and the lax regulations on earmarks and pork-barrel spending. “When he lost that historic majority, and the glow of that landslide victory faded, he had the same problems with Congress that most Presidents at one point or another have,” Obama told me. “I say that not to suggest that I’m a master wheeler-dealer but, rather, to suggest that there are some structural institutional realities to our political system that don’t have much to do with schmoozing.”
Dallek said, “Johnson could sit with Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader, kneecap to kneecap, drinking bourbon and branch water, and Dirksen would mention that there was a fine young man in his state who would be a fine judge, and the deal would be cut. Nowadays, the media would know in an instant and rightly yell ‘Corruption!’ ”
Caro finds the L.B.J.-B.H.O. comparison ludicrous. “Johnson was unique,” he said. “We have never had anyone like him, as a legislative genius. I’m working on his Presidency now. Wait till you see what he does to get Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act through. But is Obama a poor practitioner of power? I have a different opinion. No matter what the problems with the rollout of Obamacare, it’s a major advance in the history of social justice to provide access to health care for thirty-one million people.”
At the most recent dinner he attended at the White House, Caro had the distinct impression that Obama was cool to him, annoyed, perhaps, at the notion appearing in the press that his latest Johnson volume was an implicit rebuke to him. “As we were leaving, I said to Obama, ‘You know, my book wasn’t an unspoken attack on you, it’s a book about Lyndon Johnson,’ ” Caro recalled. L.B.J. was, after all, also the President who made the catastrophic decision to deepen America’s involvement in the quagmire of Vietnam. “Obama seems interested in winding down our foreign wars,” Caro said approvingly.
When Obama does ask Republicans to a social occasion, he is sometimes rebuffed. In the fall of 2012, he organized a screening at the White House of Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.” Spielberg, the cast, and the Democratic leadership found the time to come. Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and three other Republicans declined their invitations, pleading the press of congressional business. In the current climate, a Republican, especially one facing challenges at home from the right, risks more than he gains by socializing or doing business with Obama. Boehner may be prepared to compromise on certain issues, but it looks better for him if he is seen to be making a deal with Harry Reid, in the Senate, than with Barack Obama. Obama’s people say that the President’s attitude is, Fine, so long as we get there. Help me to help you.
When I asked Obama if he had read or seen anything that fully captured the experience of being in his office, he laughed, as if to say, You just have no idea. “The truth is, in popular culture the President is usually a side character and a lot of times is pretty dull,” he said. “If it’s a paranoid conspiracy-theory movie, then there’s an evil aide who is carrying something out. If it’s a good President, then he is all-wise and all-knowing”—like the characters played by Martin Sheen in “The West Wing,” and Michael Douglas in “The American President.” Obama says that he is neither. “I’ll tell you that watching ‘Lincoln’ was interesting, in part because you watched what obviously was a fictionalized account of the President I most admire, and there was such a gap between him and me that it made you want to be better.” He spoke about envying Lincoln’s “capacity to speak to and move the country without simplifying, and at the most fundamental of levels.” But what struck him most, he said, was precisely what his critics think he most avoids—“the messiness of getting something done.”
He went on, “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.”
The politician sensitive to winds and currents was visible in Obama’s coy talk of his “evolving” position on gay marriage. Obama conceded in one of our later conversations only that it’s “fair to say that I may have come to that realization slightly before I actually made the announcement” favoring gay marriage, in May of 2012. “But this was not a situation where I kind of did a wink and a nod and a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn.” The turn may not have been a sudden one-eighty; to say that your views are “evolving,” though, is to say there is a position that you consider to be more advanced than the one you officially hold. And he held the “evolved” position in 1996, when, as a candidate for the Illinois state senate, he filled out a questionnaire from Outlines, a local gay and lesbian newspaper, saying, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages.”
When I asked Obama about another area of shifting public opinion—the legalization of marijuana—he seemed even less eager to evolve with any dispatch and get in front of the issue. “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
Is it less dangerous? I asked.
Obama leaned back and let a moment go by. That’s one of his moves. When he is interviewed, particularly for print, he has the habit of slowing himself down, and the result is a spool of cautious lucidity. He speaks in paragraphs and with moments of revision. Sometimes he will stop in the middle of a sentence and say, “Scratch that,” or, “I think the grammar was all screwed up in that sentence, so let me start again.”
Less dangerous, he said, “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. It’s not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.” What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” But, he said, “we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”
As is his habit, he nimbly argued the other side. “Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge.” He noted the slippery-slope arguments that might arise. “I also think that, when it comes to harder drugs, the harm done to the user is profound and the social costs are profound. And you do start getting into some difficult line-drawing issues. If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that? If somebody says, We’ve got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn’t going to kill you or rot your teeth, are we O.K. with that?”
By Monday night, Obama was in Los Angeles, headed for Beverly Park, a gated community of private-equity barons, Saudi princes, and movie people. It was a night of fund-raisers—the first hosted by Magic Johnson, who led the Lakers to five N.B.A. championships, in the eighties. In the Beast, on the way to Johnson’s house, Obama told me, “Magic has become a good friend. I always tease him—I think he supported Hillary the first time around, in ’08.”
“He campaigned for her in Iowa!” Josh Earnest, a press spokesman, said, still sounding chagrined.
“Yeah, but we have developed a great relationship,” Obama said. “I wasn’t a Lakers fan. I was a Philadelphia 76ers fan, because I loved Doctor J.”—Julius Erving—“and then became a Jordan fan, because I moved to Chicago. But, in my mind, at least, what has made Magic heroic was not simply the joy of his playing.” Obama said that the way Johnson handled his H.I.V. diagnosis changed “how the culture thought about that—which, actually, I think, ultimately had an impact about how the culture thought about the gay community.” He also talked about Johnson’s business success as something that was “deeply admired” among African-Americans—“the notion that here’s somebody who would leverage fame and fortune in sports into a pretty remarkable business career.”
“Do you not see that often enough, by your lights?” I asked.
“I don’t,” Obama said.
The Obamas are able to speak to people of color in a way that none of their predecessors could. And the President is quick to bring into the public realm the fact that, for all his personal cool, he is a foursquare family man. He has plenty of hip-hop on his iPod, but he also worries about the moments of misogyny. Once, I mentioned to him that I knew that while Malia Obama, an aspiring filmmaker, was a fan of “Girls,” he and Michelle Obama were, at first, wary of the show.
“I’m at the very young end of the Baby Boom generation, which meant that I did not come of age in the sixties—took for granted certain freedoms, certain attitudes about gender, sexuality, equality for women, but didn’t feel as if I was having to rebel against something,” Obama said. “Precisely because I didn’t have a father in the home and moved around a lot as a kid and had a wonderfully loving mom and grandparents, but not a lot of structure growing up, I emerged on the other side of that with an appreciation for family and marriage and structure for the kids. I’m sure that’s part of why Michelle and her family held such appeal to me in the first place, because she did grow up with that kind of structure. And now, as parents, I don’t think we’re being particularly conservative—we’re actually not prudes. . . . But, as parents, what we have seen, both in our own family and among our friends, is that kids with structure have an easier time of it.”
He talked about a visit that he made last year to Hyde Park Academy, a public high school on Chicago’s South Side, where he met with a group of about twenty boys in a program called Becoming a Man. “They’re in this program because they’re fundamentally good kids who could tip in the wrong direction if they didn’t get some guidance and some structure,” Obama recalled. “We went around the room and started telling each other stories. And one of the young men asked me about me growing up, and I explained, You know what? I’m just like you guys. I didn’t have a dad. There were times where I was angry and wasn’t sure why I was angry. I engaged in a bunch of anti-social behavior. I did drugs. I got drunk. Didn’t take school seriously. The only difference between me and you is that I was in a more forgiving environment, and if I made a mistake I wasn’t going to get shot. And, even if I didn’t apply myself in school, I was at a good enough school that just through osmosis I’d have the opportunity to go to college.
“And, as I’m speaking, the kid next to me looks over and he says, ‘Are you talking about you?’ And there was a benefit for them hearing that, because when I then said, You guys have to take yourselves more seriously, or you need to have a backup plan in case you don’t end up being LeBron or Jay Z . . . they might listen. Now, that’s not a liberal or a conservative thing. There have been times where some thoughtful and sometimes not so thoughtful African-American commentators have gotten on both Michelle and me, suggesting that we are not addressing enough sort of institutional barriers and racism, and we’re engaging in sort of up-by-the-bootstraps, Booker T. Washington messages that let the larger society off the hook.” Obama thought that this reaction was sometimes knee-jerk. “I always tell people to go read some of Dr. King’s writings about the African-American community. For that matter, read Malcolm X. . . . There’s no contradiction to say that there are issues of personal responsibility that have to be addressed, while still acknowledging that some of the specific pathologies in the African-American community are a direct result of our history.”
The higher we went up into Beverly Hills, the grander the houses were. This was where the big donors lived. But Obama’s thoughts have been down in the city. The drama of racial inequality, in his mind, has come to presage a larger, transracial form of economic disparity, a deepening of the class divide. Indeed, if there is a theme for the remaining days of his term, it is inequality. In 2011, he went to Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 New Nationalism speech—a signal moment in the history of Progressivism—and declared inequality the “defining issue of our time.” He repeated the message at length, late last year, in Anacostia, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., this time noting that the gap between the rich and the poor in America now resembled that in Argentina and Jamaica, rather than that in France, Germany, or Canada. American C.E.O.s once made, on average, thirty times as much as workers; now they make about two hundred and seventy times as much. The wealthy hire lobbyists; they try to secure their interests with campaign donations. Even as Obama travels for campaign alms and is as entangled in the funding system at least as much as any other politician, he insists that his commitment is to the middle class and the disadvantaged. 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.”
In one of our conversations, I asked him what he felt he must get done before leaving office. He was silent for a while and then broke into a pained grin. “You mean, now that the Web site is working?” Yes, after that. “It’s hard to anticipate events over the next three years,” he said. “If you had asked F.D.R. what he had to accomplish in 1937, he would have told you, ‘I’ve got to stabilize the economy and reduce the deficit.’ Turned out there were a few more things on his plate.” He went on, “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.”
Obama met last summer with Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist who became famous for a book he wrote on social atomization, “Bowling Alone.” For the past several years, Putnam and some colleagues have been working on a book about the growing opportunity gap between rich and poor kids. Putnam, who led a Kennedy School seminar on civic engagement that Obama was in, sent the President a memo about his findings. More and more, Putnam found, the crucial issue is class, and he believes that a black President might have an easier time explaining this trend to the American people and setting an agenda to combat it. Other prominent politicians—including Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan, and Jeb Bush—have also consulted Putnam. Putnam told me that, even if legislation combatting the widening class divide eludes Obama, “I am hoping he can be John the Baptist on this.” And Obama, for his part, seems eager to take on that evangelizing role.
“You have an economy,” Obama told me, “that is ruthlessly squeezing workers and imposing efficiencies that make our flat-screen TVs really cheap but also puts enormous downward pressure on wages and salaries. That’s making it more and more difficult not only for African-Americans or Latinos to get a foothold into the middle class but for everybody—large majorities of people—to get a foothold in the middle class or to feel secure there. You’ve got folks like Bob Putnam, who’s doing some really interesting studies indicating the degree to which some of those ‘pathologies’ that used to be attributed to the African-American community in particular—single-parent households, and drug abuse, and men dropping out of the labor force, and an underground economy—you’re now starting to see in larger numbers in white working-class communities as well, which would tend to vindicate what I think a lot of us always felt.”
VI—A NEW EQUILIBRIUM
After the event at Magic Johnson’s place—the highlight was a tour of an immense basement trophy room, where Johnson had installed a gleaming hardwood basketball floor and piped in the sound of crowds cheering and announcers declaring the glories of the Lakers—the Beast made its way to the compound that the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers built. Haim Saban, who made his billions as a self-described “cartoon schlepper,” was born in Egypt, came of age in Israel, and started his show-business career as the bass player in the Lions of Judah. His politics are not ambiguous. “I am a one-issue guy,” he once said, “and my issue is Israel.” His closest political relationship is with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and he was crushed when she lost to Obama, in 2008. Saban publicly expressed doubts about whether Obama was sufficiently ardent about Israel, but he has come around.
The main house on Saban’s property is less of an art museum than Jon Shirley’s, though it features a Warhol diptych of Golda Meir and Albert Einstein over the fireplace. The fund-raiser was held in back of the main house, under a tent. Addressing a hundred and twenty guests, and being peppered with questions about the Middle East, Obama trotted around all the usual bases—the hope for peace, the still strong alliance with Israel, the danger of “lone wolf” terror threats. But, while a man who funds the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution may have warmed to Obama, there is no question that, in certain professional foreign-policy circles, Obama is often regarded with mistrust. His Syria policy—with its dubious “red line” and threats to get rid of Bashar al-Assad; with John Kerry’s improvised press-conference gambit on chemical weapons—has inspired little confidence. Neither did the decision to accelerate troop levels in Afghanistan and, at the same time, schedule a withdrawal.
Obama came to power without foreign-policy experience; but he won the election, in part, by advocating a foreign-policy sensibility that was wary of American overreach. If George W. Bush’s foreign policy was largely a reaction to 9/11, Obama’s has been a reaction to the reaction. He withdrew American forces from Iraq. He went to Cairo in 2009, in an attempt to forge “a new beginning” between the United States and the Muslim world. American troops will come home from Afghanistan this year. As he promised in his first Presidential campaign—to the outraged protests of Hillary Clinton and John McCain alike—he has extended a hand to traditional enemies, from Iran to Cuba. And he has not hesitated in his public rhetoric to acknowledge, however subtly, the abuses, as well as the triumphs, of American power. He remembers going with his mother to live in Indonesia, in 1967—shortly after a military coup, engineered with American help, led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. This event, and the fact that so few Americans know much about it, made a lasting impression on Obama. He is convinced that an essential component of diplomacy is the public recognition of historical facts—not only the taking of American hostages in Iran, in 1979, but also the American role in the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, in 1953.
The right’s response has been to accuse Obama of conducting a foreign policy of apology. Last year, Republican senators on the Foreign Affairs Committee, including Marco Rubio, of Florida, demanded to know if Samantha Power, Obama’s nominee for U.N. Ambassador and the author of “A Problem from Hell,” a historical indictment of American passivity in the face of various genocides around the world, would ever “apologize” for the United States. (In a depressing Kabuki drama, Power seemed forced to prove her patriotic bona fides by insisting repeatedly that the U.S. was “the greatest country on earth” and that, no, she would “never apologize” for it.) Obama’s conservative critics, both at home and abroad, paint him as a Presid
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