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.
Compare that with this supercut of things Actual Barack Obama has said:
I offered to compromise with Republicans in Congress. I met them halfway on taxes, and I met them more than halfway on spending. . . . Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell? . . . I am not a dictator, I’m the president. . . . Ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say we need to go to catch a plane, I can’t have Secret Service block the doorway [to force a sequester deal]. . . . I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that’s been floating around Washington, and that somehow — even though most people agree that I’m being reasonable, that most people agree I’m presenting a fair deal — the fact that they don’t take it means that somehow I should do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right.
If anything, Actual Barack Obama comes off pricklier than Fake Barack Obama. The bit about getting a drink with McConnell comes from the White House Correspondents Dinner, so you might be inclined to say, well, the president wasn’t telling the truth, he was telling jokes. Except that Klein himself wrote a whole post about how the president “seemed to be subverting the rules of the evening in order to get away with telling harsh truths that he could later claim were just jokes.”
Fake Barack Obama then tells the browbeaten reporter he is “happy to lead,” as demonstrated by his decision to order the bin Laden raid, which “if it went wrong, could’ve destroyed my presidency.” Actual Joe Biden, speaking of the same decision, asked a crowd of supporters: “Do any one of you have a doubt that if that raid failed that this guy would be a one-term president?”
Fake Barack Obama says: “I made decisions to rescue banks and automakers that honestly turned my stomach.” Actual Barack Obama said: “We all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. You hated it. It was as popular as a root canal. . . . [and] supporting the American auto industry required making some tough decisions.”
Fake Barack Obama says: “I’ve told my base things they really didn’t want to hear on entitlements.” Actual Barack Obama met in private with Senate Democrats in March and told them they’d have to consider entitlement cuts. We know this because he must not have been too keen to keep it a secret. Politico reported on it. So did The Hill. So did HuffPo. So did Bloomberg, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo, Kaiser News, and so on. (Go ahead, Google it.)
Fake Barack Obama says, “I pushed health-care reform over the finish line even after the polls had dropped and everyone was saying it would be my Waterloo.” Actual Barack Obama’s advocacy group, Organizing for Action, held a March 2010 phone bank called “To Push Health Care Reform over the Finish Line” and Organizing for America fundraised on the “Waterloo” line.
Fake Barack Obama says “I’ve proven that I’ll lead. I need some Republicans to lead, too. That’s the only way this works.” Actual Barack Obama said of congressional Republicans: You know . . . you seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. They are elected, members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people.”
You get the idea. And if you don’t, consider the next question Klein has his reporter ask his ungodly creation. “In Wednesday’s Politico, Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write that, and I’m quoting, ‘D.C turns on Obama.’ . . . Can you govern in this town without the support of this town?”
Fake Obama responds with an incredulous “Are you serious?” which echoes the “Are they serious?” Actual Obama deployed in his (I guess) Bulworthesque response to the failure of gun-control legislation in the Senate. When Klein’s imagined reporter confirms that he — like the bipartisan group of senators who voted against the background checks — is indeed serious, Fake Obama really goes off:
Here’s what I’m doing wrong. I still let myself care about Politico’s Washington. I let myself care what’s written on op-ed pages and what’s said on cable news. I read this stuff and I get mad. And every moment I spend doing that is a moment when I’m getting further and further away from real people’s problems. Every moment I spend doing that is a moment I’m not checking up on the implementation of health reform or hearing more options on Syria. Every moment I spend meeting about our “message” is a moment I’m not spending on the road around people’s kitchen tables letting them tell me what they’re worried about.
Look, I wanted to change Washington. And I think that the legislation we passed has changed America. But to be honest, so far as the way Washington works goes, Washington has changed me, and I don’t like it. That’s one place I broke a promise to the American people.
Except it’s not that far off of stuff Actual Barack Obama has said. Again, a supercut:
I know it can be easy, especially in Washington, to get caught up in the day-to-day chatter of cable television. . . . TV loves a ruckus. . . . Our attitude was we just had to get the policy right, and we did not always think about making sure we were advertising properly what was going on. . . . I know it can seem frustrating sometimes when it seems like Washington’s priorities aren’t the same as your priorities . . . [but while] others may get distracted by chasing every fleeting issue that passes by . . . the middle class will always be my No. 1 focus, period. . . . I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. . . . You can only change it from the outside.
Like a lot of folks I’ll bet, when I first read the Bulworth line my thought was, “Look how casually our politicians admit that they rarely tell us what they’re really thinking.” That’s depressing. But to compare Actual Barack Obama and Fake Barack Obama is to confront an equally depressing possibility. That there’s no really, really. That it’s talking points all the way down.
— Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.