Politics & Policy

Obama’s Vacation Reading

Is the president trying to become a man of the people?

President Obama’s vacation reading was announced recently, and the three authors likely to get sales boosts from the announcement are Lou Cannon, David Mitchell, and John Le Carré, authors of President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, and Our Kind of Traitor, respectively. Also, on Christmas, the Washington Post reported that President Obama was reading Taylor Branch’s book about the Clinton presidency.

A number of analysts have suggested that these selections show that Obama is trying to become more of a man of the people. The Independent’s Guy Adams says the picks of “the le Carré and David Mitchell bestsellers are populist gestures; Mr. Obama’s previous reading lists, which included works by such authors as Thomas Friedman, are said to have been too dry and academic for Middle America.”A report in the Australian suggests that Obama is “stung by criticism he is aloof and out of touch” and has therefore “turned to the great communicator for inspiration.”

I am not so sure. Having made a bit of a study of the meaning we can derive from presidential reading (see here and here), I think that the choices reflect who Obama is and how he wants to be seen, but I don’t think he will be turning to populism anytime soon. With The Thousand Autumns, Obama is once again looking at a sprawling historical novel, as he did with this summer’s Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. The Thousand Autumns has some cachet among the smart set, and Obama seems to enjoy the approval of that crowd. Furthermore, the New York Times described the Mitchell book as having “meticulously reconstructed the lost world of Edo-era Japan,” which does not strike me as characteristic of a populist reading selection.

As for the Reagan book: Obama, like Clinton, has demonstrated a tendency to read mainly books by liberal authors. (George W. Bush, in contrast, read a variety of works from both liberals and conservatives.) By reading Cannon, Obama may not be reading a conservative author, but at least he is reading about a conservative subject, which is progress, of a sort. More likely, though, he is looking to a great president for clues as to how he, too, can become a great president. Reagan’s communication skills were of course superb, but his policies had something to do with it as well, and Obama would have to take on some of Reagan’s ideology to learn the full lesson of Reagan. Everyone, left and right alike, can agree that this is unlikely to happen.

Le Carré is typical vacation reading, and probably does not teach us all that much, although Obama may have been intrigued by the cameo appearance that his wife, Michelle, makes in the book. According to the New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “in one passage, characters cannot visit the gardens of the Champs-Élysées because ‘Michelle Obama and her children are in town.’”

As for the Branch book about Clinton, the December 25 Washington Post report that it was on Obama’s list came more than two months after the New York Times’ Peter Baker reported that Obama was “seeking guidance in presidential biographies,” including the Branch book. Presumably, it is taking Obama a long while to get through the book’s 720 pages. It is also possible that he does not read that many books when not on vacation. In a conversation with the New York Times’ Michael Powell, he admitted that one of the challenges of the presidency is that “you have very little chance to really read. I basically floss my teeth and watch SportsCenter.”

Regardless, Obama’s recent interest in Clinton may have been part of an early effort to begin his preparations for dealing with a GOP Congress. Looking to learn from the past to avoid mistakes is a good idea, but Obama is not the only one who stands to benefit from looking at the history of the Gingrich–Clinton showdowns. New House speaker John Boehner has an interest in this as well — he not only has studied the earlier interaction, but lived through it, and will presumably be prepared to face the Clinton playbook should Obama resort to using it.

As always, it is important not to read too much into presidential reading. As the interpretation of reading selections can vary widely, overthinking the selections by a president can backfire. Also, there is no rule that says that all of a president’s books need to be disclosed to the public. A president should pick books that he likes, and let the politics of the reading sort themselves out. The best thing to do, as Animal House’s Otter suggested about golf — which also occupied a great deal of Obama’s vacation — is to not “think of it as work. The whole point is just to enjoy yourself.”

— Tevi Troy is a visiting senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is a former White House aide and a former deputy secretary of health and human services.


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