The Magazine

Being Obama

It’s all about him.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Once upon a time we had a president who sulked that his relatively uneventful tenure denied him the chance to thrust his way into greatness. In the days after 9/11, the New York Times carried a quotation from a “close friend” about Bill Clinton’s misfortune: “He has said there has to be a defining moment in a presidency that really makes a great presidency. He didn’t have one.” Clinton, the Times reported, was “described by friends as a frustrated spectator, unable to guide the nation through a crisis that is far bigger than anything he confronted in his eight-year tenure.”

Obama Photo

AP / Steven Senne

This tracked with earlier accounts from two of Clinton’s advisers. George Stephanopoulos wrote that Clinton “envied Lincoln his enemies, knowing that it takes a moral challenge to create a memorable presidency.” In his book about his White House years, Dick Morris related a conversation he had with Clinton about his place in history. “You can’t be first tier,” Morris explained gently to his boss, “unless unanticipated historical forces put you there.” “Like a war,” Clinton agreed glumly, before asking, a little more hopefully, “Okay, second tier?”

At the time, this sort of wistfulness seemed the height of vanity. Today, it’s almost charmingly quaint.

Earlier this year on March 11, a Friday, Japan was struck by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. An hour later a 30-foot tidal wave swamped the northeast portion of the country, killing thousands and leaving devastation in its wake. Four hours after that, Japan declared itself in a state of nuclear emergency. Within days, at least three of the country’s nuclear reactors were in states of partial meltdown. While the crisis in Japan was accelerating, oil prices continued to hover around $100 per barrel, America’s domestic economic recovery continued to disintegrate, a revolution in Libya continued to blossom into a full-fledged civil conflict, and American troops continued to fight in Afghanistan.

On Saturday, March 12, President Obama played golf. On Monday, March 14, President Obama visited a middle school in Northern Virginia to kick off a week’s worth of activities centered around “Winning the Future” of education. Because it was a big day, he also kicked off a “Sunshine Week” celebration to trumpet reforms to the Freedom of Information Act. On Tuesday, March 15, President Obama sat down with ESPN to tape a segment about his NCAA March Madness picks.

As he surveyed the globe you could practically hear Obama thinking to himself, Chance the Gardener-style, I like to watch .  .  .

We’ve seen this President Obama all too often. It started with the stimulus. Instead of crafting his own bill, one which put government money into projects with both economic impact and practical benefit—like, say, defense procurement—he handed the job to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. The result was $787 billion for Democratic clients and “shovel-ready projects” that, Obama now says laughingly, were never really shovel-ready. He took the same approach with his health care reform act, arguing and arm-twisting from the sidelines without getting involved in the specifics of the legislation. After having a budget rejected by the Senate (97‑0) last March, he declined to put forward another plan. Oh, he talked a lot about what his plans might be. His collected mutterings on the subject prompted Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Elmendorf to quip, “We don’t estimate speeches.”

But it’s not just his executive approach to policy. When BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig blew up last summer, Obama spent a lot of time on peripheral activities. As the rig was leaking in May, he sat for an interview about basketball with Marv Albert, toured the country promoting the stimulus, and met with Duke’s basketball team. During a memorial service for the workers killed on the oil rig, he was on his way to a fundraiser in California. When he did finally get down to Louisiana, the very first thing Obama did after he walked off the plane—literally—was put his arm around Gov. Bobby Jindal and take him aside. He did not want to talk about the spill in the Gulf. Jindal explains what followed in his book, Leadership and Crisis:

I was expecting words of concern about the oil spill, worry about the pending ecological disaster, and words of confidence about how the federal government was here to help. Or perhaps he was going to vent about BP’s slow response. But no, the president was upset about something else. And he wanted to talk about, well, food stamps. Actually, he wanted to talk about a letter that my administration had sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack a day earlier.

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