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Has He Learned Anything?

Peter Baker's revealing profile of the president. (What it reveals is a president prepared to dig in.)

5:15 PM, Oct 14, 2010 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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In this weekend's New York Times Magazine, Peter Baker profiles President Obama. He seems to have spent a serious amount of time with Obama and his aides—some on the record, others on background. If you're wondering what is our commander in chief thinking (you might not want to know), "The Education of a President" is worth reading.

A few highlights:

“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."

As Baker adds, "That presumes that what he did was the right thing, a matter of considerable debate." But of course for Obama, the policy is unquestionable. That people find health care reform unpopular is simply because he didn't explain it clearly enough. Because we no understand.

When Baker mentions to the president his famous line that "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," wondering if Obama had created unworldly expectations, the president admits the speech in its entirety was ambitious but insists, "We’ve made progress on each of those fronts.” "But save the planet?" asks Baker. "He laughed, before shifting back to hope and inspiration." So the president still believes he can heal the planet—perhaps by reversing the Earth's rotation by flying around it over and over, turning back time.

As for the president's slightly idealistic advisers,

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.

But as with most everything, there is one group to blame:

Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the upper chamber and Obama’s ally from Illinois, said the Republicans were to blame for the absence of bipartisanship. “I think his fate was sealed,” Durbin said. “Once the Republicans decided they would close ranks to defeat him, that just made it extremely difficult and dragged it out for a longer period of time. The American people have a limited attention span. Once you convince them there’s a problem, they want a solution."

Who would have guessed the most popular president ever could be thwarted by 40 Republicans in the Senate and 178 in the House. Rules need to be changed. Ban the filibuster (until January of next year).

And this paragraph I found particularly amusing:

It would be bad form for the president to anticipate an election result before it happens, but clearly Obama hopes that just as Clinton recovered from his party’s midterm shellacking in 1994 to win re-election two years later, so can he. There was something odd in hearing Obama invoke Clinton. Two years ago, Obama scorned the 42nd president, deriding the small-ball politics and triangulation maneuvers and comparing him unfavorably with Ronald Reagan. Running against Clinton’s wife, Obama was the anti-Clinton. Now he hopes, in a way, to be the second coming of Bill Clinton. Because, in the end, it’s better than being Jimmy Carter.

Then there is this:

One prominent Democratic lawmaker told me Obama’s problem is that he is not insecure — he always believes he is the smartest person in any room and never feels the sense of panic that makes a good politician run scared all the time, frenetically wooing lawmakers, power brokers, adversaries and voters as if the next election were a week away.

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