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Highlights from the NYT Magazine Profile of Obama


As I’m reading it:

—POTUS politely disagrees with Arianna Huffington’s criticism of the Oval Office redecoration. Which means he’s read Arianna Huffington’s criticism of the Oval Office redecoration.

The couches were new. He told me he was happy with the redecorating of the office. “I know Arianna doesn’t like it,” he said lightly. “But I like taupe.”

—Obama’s “tactical regrets” boil down to: He was so good at policy that he didn’t have time for politics. For instance, even though he beat Republicans to the punch on including tax cuts in the stimulus bill, he should have “let them” propose the cuts so it would have been seen as a bipartisan compromise.

Obama told me he had no regrets about the broad direction of his presidency. But he did identify what he called “tactical lessons.” He let himself look too much like “the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.” He realized too late that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects” when it comes to public works. Perhaps he should not have proposed tax breaks as part of his stimulus and instead “let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts” so it could be seen as a bipartisan compromise.

Most of all, he has learned that, for all his anti-Washington rhetoric, he has to play by Washington rules if he wants to win in Washington. It is not enough to be supremely sure that he is right if no one else agrees with him. “Given how much stuff was coming at us,” Obama told me, “we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular. And I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”

Also, the bit about there being no such thing as “shovel ready” projects in public works is perhaps more of an admission than Obama seems to realize. You mean there were elements of the stimulus that weren’t sufficiently well thought out? And that public-sector spending isn’t the most efficient way to boost the economy?

—Quoting from Obama’s June 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention:

. . . he told an admiring crowd that someday “we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.”

Wow, sometimes you forget he said that stuff.

—The sense of dread from the two-dozen administration officials interviewed for the piece:

Many officials worry, they say, that the best days of the Obama presidency are behind them. They talk about whether it is time to move on.

—And this remarkable paragraph that captures Obama aides’ stunned recognition that perhaps their boss isn’t destined to be another Abe Lincoln (!) — and it’s America’s fault.

In their darkest moments, White House aides wonder aloud whether it is even possible for a modern president to succeed, no matter how many bills he signs. Everything seems to conspire against the idea: an implacable opposition with little if any real interest in collaboration, a news media saturated with triviality and conflict, a culture that demands solutions yesterday, a societal cynicism that holds leadership in low regard. Some White House aides who were ready to carve a new spot on Mount Rushmore for their boss two years ago privately concede now that he cannot be another Abraham Lincoln after all. In this environment, they have increasingly concluded, it may be that every modern president is going to be, at best, average.

—Dick Durbin sums it up: “The American people have a limited attention span.”

—Former Reagan man, and Obamacon, Ken Duberstein has a little buyer’s remorse:

“When he talked about being a transformational president, it was about restoring the faith of the American people in our governing institutions,” says Ken Duberstein, the former Reagan White House chief of staff who voted for Obama in 2008. “What we now know is that that did not work. If anything, people are even more dubious about all of our institutions, especially government. So to that extent, the transformational side has not worked. And frankly I would settle these days — forget about transformational, how about a transactional president, somebody people could do business with? It seems there’s an ideological rigidity that the American people did not sense.”

—Confirmation that the administration screwed Shelby, Corker et. al. on bipartisan negotiations on the financial-reform bill to wage class war:

Still, Obama plays the partisan game as well. After months of quiet negotiations, some administration officials thought they were close to a package of new financial regulations with Republican support when, to their chagrin, the White House decided to use the issue to wage a high-profile and politically useful battle with Wall Street special interests. At that point, the chances for a deal across party lines collapsed, administration officials said, and Obama was left to rely almost entirely on Democratic votes.

—A job-hunting Peter Orzsag on the gulf between Obama and the business community:

Obama advisers who left the White House recently have been struck how different, and worse, things look from the outside. As he made a round of corporate job interviews after stepping down as White House budget director, Peter Orszag was stunned to discover how deep the gulf between the president and business had become. “I’d thought it was an 8, but it’s more like a 10,” he told me. “And rather than wasting time debating whether it’s legitimate,” he added, referring to his former colleagues, “the key is to recognize that it’s affecting what they do.”

—On Obama’s opacity:

While Clinton made late-night phone calls around Washington to vent or seek advice, Obama rarely reaches outside the tight group of advisers like Emanuel, Axelrod, Rouse, Messina, Plouffe, Gibbs and Jarrett, as well as a handful of personal friends. “He’s opaque even to us,” an aide told me. “Except maybe for a few people in the inner circle, he’s a closed book.”

—Obama is getting advice from presidential historians on the historical antecedents of the tea parties. They aren’t flattering:

To better understand history, and his role in it, Obama invited a group of presidential scholars to dinner in May in the living quarters of the White House. Obama was curious about, among other things, the Tea Party movement. Were there precedents for this sort of backlash against the establishment? What sparked them and how did they shape American politics? The historians recalled the Know-Nothings in the 1850s, the Populists in the 1890s and Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s. “He listened,” the historian H. W. Brands told me. “What he concluded, I don’t know.”

—On how the White House sees 2012 playing out:

They are more optimistic about 2012 than they are about 2010, believing the Tea Party will re-elect Barack Obama by pulling the Republican nominee to the right. They doubt Sarah Palin will run and figure Mitt Romney cannot get the Republican nomination because he enacted his own health care program in Massachusetts. If they had to guess today, some in the White House say that Obama will find himself running against Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.


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