Last week, the New York Times reported a little access-nugget about the state of President Obama’s psyche: “In private,” the Times’ Peter Baker writes, the president “has talked longingly of ‘going Bulworth,’ a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought.”
In the movie, which has earned its marginal position in pop-culture history, Senator Bulworth decides to kill himself by hiring his own assassin, and spends most of his numbered days smoking herb, chasing Halle Berry’s skirt, and freestyle rapping about Important Topics like health-care reform. It was not a good look for Beatty, whose canned-ham performance helped extinguish the last embers of his Hollywood-renaissance relevance. And its choice as metaphor by whoever in the White House leaked it certainly raises some weird questions about what sort of inhibitions the president is longing to shake off.
Thankfully, these are weird questions that Ezra Klein asked, and had answered by, “a number of ex-Obama aides and political consultants” who “have heard Obama vent about Washington in private.” Klein composited these conversations into a work of “informed fiction” about an imaginary press conference at which POTUS decides to finally take the gloves off and tell the gaggle what he really thinks.
If you’re expecting to be shocked, you’ll be disappointed. Because the remarkable thing about — we’ll call him Fake Barack Obama — is that he sounds exactly like boring-old Actual Barack Obama, suggesting that either Klein’s sources have an especially lame conception of keeping it real, or the truth about what the president really really thinks can’t be entrusted even to steadfast allies.
Klein, for example, imagines a reporter asking the president to comment on criticism that he is “overly passive,” and whether he agrees that it is ultimately “up to you to lead.” Fake Barack Obama responds by going after the press itself: “Let me be clear. This kind of question right here is the problem,” he says. “You have no idea what it actually is that you’re asking.” Later, Fake Barack Obama accuses the fictional reporter of abandoning clarity for the sake of a kind of empty pseudo-balance that would insulate him from the charge that he is “taking a side.” But, Fake Barack Obama adds, he is in fact “taking the side of the media backing off of its role as a neutral arbiter and . . . of what’s easy for you over what your readers and listeners need you to do.”
The spokesman of Actual Barack Obama, Jay Carney, took a reporter to task during the campaign using similar language, in response to a question about whether the White House would vow not to quote Mitt Romney out of context, as they had accused Romney of doing to them. “That’s a rather remarkable question,” he said. “Certainly, we believe that you all ought to do your jobs and report on context.” Carney added, with not a little edge: “I would say that our general position is that we’re for truthful, accurate, factual reporting that’s done in context.”
Fake Barack Obama then pounds his non-extant interlocutor for not defining what it means to “lead,” and offers his own rhetorical litany:
You’d say, shouldn’t I be putting forward a budget that includes serious compromises on entitlement spending to show I’ll meet the Republicans halfway? But I did that. You’d say shouldn’t you be reaching out more to the Hill, trying to build some personal relationships with more congressional Republicans, maybe invite Paul Ryan to lunch? But I did that. You’d say, shouldn’t you just sign an executive order repealing sequestration. But I can’t do that, and you know that. You could say, why aren’t you ordering the army to march on Capitol Hill and simply take the place over? But I’m not going to stage a coup, and you don’t want me to.