Journalists often play dumb as a way of drawing information from a reluctant source. But they are just as quick to act smart—to assume an air of authority over a topic with which they have been only briefly acquainted. Michael Lewis, the financial journalist and author of many bestsellers, is now an authority on Barack Obama. He’s been speaking with great familiarity about our president ever since last week, when Vanity Fair published Lewis’s heavily hyped profile of him, under the title “Obama’s Way.”
“I would say he loves people,” he told a gathering at Bloomberg News in New York. “He’s got odd social habits for someone like him. What he really likes is non-transactional relationships, when you and I don’t want anything from each other.” He went on: “He doesn’t like people flattering him.” And on: “He’s got a gift for making people happy.” And on and on: “When he was a young man, he thought he was going to be a writer, I think—he won’t completely admit that. . . . He spends half his life laughing. He’s a very happy, warm person.”
Lewis acquired his expertise, as Vanity Fair publicists repeated frequently last week, over the course of six months during which he was allowed, off and on, to see the president and often to speak with him. “Unprecedented access,” the publicists called it, and interviewers repeated the phrase. It was his own idea, Lewis told the NPR interviewer Terry Gross in a publicity blitz, “to sit in the president’s shoes and see what it feels like.” Last year he sent off a request to the president’s press secretary. To his surprise, he says, he heard back the next day: Come on down!
I’m surprised that Lewis was surprised. He doesn’t write about politics much, but he’s never tried to bury his sympathies as a liberal Democrat, standard-issue. He is also the best-known, most successful, and, in an unlikely coincidence, most talented magazine writer in the country, with a wide range and a sly humor and a frictionless prose style that never fails to make a pleasing impression on the page. Perhaps more important, Lewis agreed to give Obama’s staff a veto over what material he could include in his article. He explained to Terry Gross that he agreed to this demand after he’d read a much-discussed front-page article in the New York Times, which said such an arrangement was typical between political reporters and politicians. (The Times story appeared in July 2012, seven months after Lewis began following Obama.) In the event, Lewis said, the president’s men didn’t make him delete much. Ninety-five percent of his original draft, he said, met with their approval.
This shouldn’t surprise us much either. It must be said that in addition to his tireless industry and gift as a teller of tales, Lewis is often played for a chump by the people he writes about. In the early 1990s, for a book called Pacific Rift, a group of Japanese and American capitalists convinced him of the Japanese economy’s indomitable strength, just as the Japanese economy began its long descent.
In Moneyball a baseball executive convinced Lewis that he had turned the sport into a “social science,” deploying statistics to assemble winning teams as no one had done before. It wasn’t true, as the subsequent failure of the teams showed. It made for a cracking good yarn, though, and a hugely popular book.
In the late 1990s, an entrepreneur named Jim Clark convinced Lewis that American capitalism, thanks to digital technology, was entering an unprecedented era of “pure possibility.” All that the era really was, was a tech bubble, which popped just as Lewis’s book about Clark was published. We could go on.
Along with his willingness to give Obama’s staff editorial veto power, Lewis’s professional gullibility weakens the article’s value as an objective peek into Obama’s world. At the same time it makes the piece more interesting than it might have been otherwise. As reporter and writer, whether consciously or not, Lewis in effect joined the team, and he was happy to remain under close supervision, watching what he was meant to watch and staying away when he was told to bug off.
“Obama’s Way,” in other words, is exactly how the Obama administration wants you the reader—you the voter—to think of the president. It’s as close to an official portrait as we are likely to get until the president himself writes his memoirs in his own soaring prose.
Lewis has succumbed inevitably to the Obama Delusion, the vision, once so widely shared, of the blinding splendor of this fellow who has proved to be so ordinary. As a Delusionist he happens upon Obama doing unexceptional things that become, by virtue of Obama doing them, wildly impressive. Lewis discovers, for example, that President Obama is required to make many decisions in his job. He makes fewer of them than we might hope, of course, as in his temporizing response to the Syrian uprising; and the ones he does make are ones we might wish he hadn’t made, as in his insistence on spending so damn much money.
But what wows the author is the incredible complexity of the process by which those decisions are made.
“Many if not most of his decisions are thrust upon the president, out of the blue, by events beyond his control,” Lewis writes, as if bringing the news. “They don’t order themselves neatly for his consideration.”
He quotes President Obama at length on the subject. Indeed, the president seems to have spent as much time thinking about how he makes decisions as he has spent making decisions.
“You wind up dealing with probabilities,” the president told Lewis. “Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”
Reading Lewis’s article you’re reminded that Obama was himself the first Obama Delusionist. He can take an unoriginal observation, as he does here—nothing’s for certain in this big ole world, so you better get used to it—and make it seem as complicated as possible, draping it in “probabilities” and using the moment’s most fashionable words: He not only “owns his decisions,” he works in a “shifting model” and needs to “frame an issue” to create a “narrative” that might inspire a “conversation.”
And he releases these clouds of jargon, the cant of a Vanity Fair pseud, knowing that his fellow Delusionists will be knocked over. The White House staff, surely smitten, never suspects that the president is a windbag.
Lewis says the president himself suggested the outline for his article. “He led me to the general idea that I should frame this piece around a single decision,” Lewis told Gross. With the president’s help, he discovered that “the decision about Libya was so interesting.” He’s referring to the president’s decision last year to use troops to help dethrone Muammar Qaddafi. (Unluckily, Lewis’s article was published during a week when the wisdom of the Libyan intervention began to look, in hindsight, maybe not-so-wise.)
At this point in “Obama’s Way,” Lewis goes all Bob Woodward on us. He reconstructs, tick-tock fashion, how Obama decided to intervene.
In making his decisions, Lewis explains, the president attends meetings. Beforehand, he is given a list of the people who will be there. Many people speak at these meetings. The president listens to their arguments. He considers the actions they recommend. And when he’s not satisfied with the actions they’re recommending, he asks them to come up with other ideas, sometimes on short notice. In the end, he adopts the arguments he’s persuaded by and chooses the actions he agrees with.
It’s incredible. Perhaps he is The One.
You wonder why the president should want Lewis to write in-depth about the Libyan decision, which was made a year before Lewis began shadowing him. For all his unprecedented access, his six months of being a fly-on-the-wall, Lewis apparently wasn’t able to witness a decision firsthand that would serve as an example of the president’s excellence. And Lewis neglects to mention that in the long catalogue of the president’s foreign-policy making, the Libyan intervention is an anomaly—an intervention from an administration notable for its reluctance to intervene in anything but the American economy.
Lewis writes as though he’s never read a presidential biography or a White House memoir; and his White House handlers were betting, I suppose, that his readers haven’t either. Certainly the media figures who helped him publicize his gee-whiz thesis, interviewers like Gross and Rachel Maddow (was Charlie Rose sick last week?), were enthralled. The president’s frustration with a stubborn opposition, his difficulty in keeping fresh and informed by outside advice, his habits of leisure (he works out a lot—a lot), the variety of tasks he’s asked to perform, the solace he takes from family life—all appear to the Delusionist to be new and unexpected in the annals of presidential leadership.
At a length of 13,000 words, “Obama’s Way” eventually offers a few items of interest. The president has begun to worry that people find him cold. He hastens to assure Lewis, in answer to a question Lewis didn’t ask, that this seeming defect is in fact a virtue. He’s no good, he says, at “faking emotion,” not realizing that this implies he has little emotion to fake.
He clings to his belief in his oratorical powers. “My best speeches are when I know that what I’m saying is true in a fundamental way. People find their strength in different places. That’s where I’m strong,” he says, failing to mention that he’s given a single moving speech (in honor of Gabby Giffords) among hundreds of speeches over the course of his term.
There’s something touching as well as creepy in the Delusion as it fades. Lewis’s article can be seen as one final effort to recapture the magic, to reinflate the soufflé long after it went pfft. It’s not Michael Lewis’s fault, it’s not even the fault of the White House staff, that the material just isn’t there.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.