ORATORY JANUARY 20, 2014
David Remnick's long profile of President Obama in this week's New Yorker gives the president numerous opportunities to speak at length about a variety of subjects and events. Remnick's piece is not edited in the style of most New Yorker stories, perhaps because Remnick himself felt that the best way for readers to really "get" Obama was to let him talk (and talk), largely uninterrupted. The portrait that emerges is not so different from the picture most people who follow politics already have of the president: serious, reserved, rather dispassionate, cerebral, intellectual, and proud of his own self-awareness.
It's this last attribute, however, that has become increasingly noticeable over the past five years. And the more noticeable it's gotten, the less attractive it has become.
There was a time, of course, when the very idea of having a president who is smart and engaged seemed like a luxury. Obama's intellect—well caught by Robert Gates in his new memoir—marks an improvement over many other people who have held the office. Remnick defines the style as "the professorial immersion in complexity." The more familiar way in which liberals characterize this is to say, as John Stewart said during the 2008 campaign, that Obama talks to us "like adults."
Does he? I'm starting to have my doubts. Yes, the president is capable of giving intelligent and mature answers to questions. But the intent is so obvious—and the effort shows such strain—that the answers feel more condescending than enlightening. Remnick's piece, in fact, doesn't show Obama's complexity; it shows Obama applauding his own complexity. The president is like a novelist who demands on telling you the motivation of every character, except he is the only character.
The result is that he actually ends up speaking to us like children.
Obama's form of children-talk is different from George W. Bush's. Obama's signature move, ironically, involves refusing to give simple answers to questions, a habit for which he clearly prides himself. Meanwhile, not only does the president go meta on every specific answer; he also goes meta on his own style of giving answers. Near the end of the piece, Obama says this to Remnick:
“I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every President, like every person. I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that at the end of the day things will be better rather than worse.”
After eight years of George W. Bush, I found comments like this one appealing five years ago, and so did a lot of others. All the same, while it may be "adult" to talk to people with such self-awareness, the sentiments themselves are not very deep ("doing my very best," "at the end of the day things will be better rather than worse.") This is how adults talk?
Here is Obama on marijuana:
“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...
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.”
Allowing for the typical comment about his own history, and for the wavering answer on alcohol, this is a good and smart answer. But then:
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?”
It's not just that the answer is now maddeningly long. Nor is it merely that Obama exhibits his annoying tic of stating his opponent's case in the most extreme, over-the top way (who exactly thinks marijuana legalization is a "panacea" for solving "all these social problems?") It's also, again, the condescension. We know there are other sides to the issue. We know the issue is complex. We know there are slippery slope arguments about drug legalization. But either he doesn't think that we know these things or, more damningly, he must remind us that he knows them, too.
The reason he does this, I would argue, is that he is more interested in telling us how he thinks than what he thinks. His defense of the NSA, for example, has largely rested on his statements that he and his team are trustworthy and thoughtful people. And here he is, to Remnick, on the use of drones, primarily in Pakistan and Yemen:
“Look, you wrestle with it,” Obama said. “And those who have questioned our drone policy are doing exactly what should be done in a democracy—asking some tough questions. The only time I get frustrated is when folks act like it’s not complicated and there aren’t some real tough decisions, and are sanctimonious, as if somehow these aren’t complicated questions. Listen, as I have often said to my national-security team, I didn’t run for office so that I could go around blowing things up.”
Again, this isn't really an answer. It is a description of Obama's mind. He "wrestles with it." He knows that democracies function through a civil society. These are "tough decisions." Obama didn't run for office so he could go to war—hence he must hate using drones, and so we should trust his instincts when he does want to use them. This answer, too, started with a more grounded (pardon the pun) defense of drones, in which he stated that they actually lower civilian casualties. But that wasn't enough; he had to explain his process.
Another example of Obama's habit of wallowing in descriptions of his own hallowed mental process is his answer on government, which you have probably read (at least a version of) before:
"This is where sometimes progressives get frustrated with me,” he said, “because I actually think there was a legitimate critique of the welfare state getting bloated, and relying too much on command and control, top-down government programs to address it back in the seventies. It’s also why it’s ironic when I’m accused of being this raging socialist who wants to amass more and more power for their own government. . . . But I do think that some of the anti-government rhetoric, anti-tax rhetoric, anti-spending rhetoric that began before Reagan but fully flowered with the Reagan Presidency accelerated trends that were already existing, or at least robbed us of some tools to deal with the downsides of globalization and technology, and that with just some modest modification we could grow this economy faster and benefit more people and provide more opportunity."
This is so devoid of specifics, and so inarguable among 99% of even New Yorker readers, that it shouldn't be read as an actual philosophy of government. Rather, it should be seen as a window into Obama. Think he can make a pro or anti government statement without stating the other side? Think again. It's as if the reader can't be trusted to just hear one side from the president, because that might (heaven forbid) make him or her think Obama hasn't considered every angle.
Finally, here he is on child-rearing:
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.”
Buried in this answer is some interesting psychological detail about the president's attraction to his wife. But it is surrounded by a bunch of clichés that have nothing to do with the subject at hand—i.e. whether to let your kid watch a show with sexual content. What does a structured family life have to do with this decision? What on earth does Obama's generation have to do with it? My hunch is that Obama wanted to say that he embraced certain values of the sixties (sexual freedom, relaxed social mores) without others (a hedonistic lifestyle). The president has long been fond of separating himself from the Baby Boomers in any way he can. Still, his inability to discuss this relatively straightforward topic without this long, somewhat pointless digression is striking.
The larger question is how much this has affected his presidency. Remnick subscribes to the persuasive view that Obama's struggles are, by-and-large, not a result of personality quirks. This seems basically right, although it wouldn't be hard to outline a connection between Obama's high opinion of his own intellect, and his high-minded unwillingness to be uncompromising and firm in early negotiations with Congress. It is also the case that Obama's attempts to embrace all sides of an issue—see this lengthy New York Times story on his administration's Syria policy—occasionally result in a muddle.
Obama may indeed often be the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn't need to remind people that he is. We are adults, too.