If Obama went Bulworth, here’s what he’d say

May 16, 2013

The New York Times reported Thursday that President Obama frequently fantasizes to close aides about "going Bulworth," a reference to the 1998 movie in which Sen. Jay Bulworth, played by Warren Beatty, drops all pretense and begins saying exactly what he thinks. So I asked a number of ex-Obama aides and political consultants what the president would say if he went Bulworth. This post is based on those conversations -- it's what the people who have heard Obama vent about Washington in private believe he wishes he could say in public. That said, this is the Internet so let's be crystal clear: This is a work of fiction. Informed fiction, but fiction nevertheless. 

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good afternoon. As you know, on Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Lew asked for and received the resignation of acting IRS director Stephen Miller. I want to reemphasize that my administration will not tolerate this kind of behavior at the I.R.S. or any other agency. But I don't want to see this whole town get distracted from the other pressing work we have to do, either. The American people deserve a government they can trust. But they also deserve one that makes progress on problems like unemployment and immigration and sequestration. In fact...I mean, I should be clear. [Heavy sigh.] Actually, why don't I just take some of your questions.

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. At this point, though, can the American people actually trust their government? There's a sense that these issues might just be the tip of the iceberg.

OBAMA: [Long pause.] Are you kidding me?

No, the American people can't trust their government. They can't trust their media either, I might add. But that's not because of a couple of I.R.S. agents out in Cincinnati. We can fix the Cincinnati office. Let me be clear: We're already fixing the Cincinnati office. This problem was solved a year ago. The guy who solved it just got fired anyway because you all wanted to see some blood on the walls and I'm just political enough to give it to you.

Look, the reason the American people can't trust their government is here in Washington. Right now sequestration is cutting unemployment checks by 10 or 11 percent. Do you hear anyone talking about that? Or doing anything about it? No. You hear Republicans aides telling Politico, anonymously, that the speaker is quote "obsessed" with Benghazi. You know, I don't think most of the Republicans screaming about Benghazi could find Libya on a map. I don't think 10 of them knew our ambassador's name. And, let me be clear, Speaker Boehner certainly wasn't obsessed with giving us the money we asked for to keep the embassy's safe.

But now he's obsessed with Benghazi. And not even Benghazi. The Benghazi talking points. Are you kidding me? He's not obsessed with global warming or unemployment or rebuilding our infrastructure.  And now that there's conflict, all of you are obsessed with Benghazi talking points too, and meanwhile, we're cutting the National Institutes of Health and we're cutting too deep into the military and we're making life harder for the unemployed and we're doing nothing to keep this planet in good shape for our kids.

Look, this is why the American people can't trust their government. Because this town is obsessed with conflict and political advantage and not with real problems. We worry about the wrong things so much that we don't even have time to talk to the American people or each other about the right things. And that's not the I.R.S.'s fault.

Q: Sir, you've been criticized in recent weeks for being overly passive. And as you say here, it's your view the government isn't doing enough on the problems facing the American people. Isn't it up to you to lead?

OBAMA: Let me be clear. This kind of question right here is the problem. You have no idea what it actually is that you're asking. If you did, you wouldn't use the word "lead." You'd be specific. 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.

So you use this word "lead." And it gives you cover. It lets you say the fault here is on both sides. The Republicans, they won't compromise, and they won't work with me, and they keep threatening to shut down the government or breach the debt ceiling. But, on the other hand, I'm not leading. And so it's all kind of even. And then no one can criticize you for being partisan. No one can say you're taking a side. No one can criticize you at all because no one can argue with the word "lead" until you define it, which you never do.

But let me be clear, you are taking a side. You're taking the side of this town not working again. You're taking the side of the media backing off of its role as a neutral arbiter and becoming an enabler of whatever irresponsible political strategy one party or the other happens to pick that week. You're taking the side of what's easy for you over what your readers and listeners need you to do.

Look, I'm happy to lead. I've sent young men and women to die in battle. I ordered a raid on Osama bin Laden's compound that, if it went wrong, could've destroyed my presidency. I made decisions to rescue banks and automakers that honestly turned my stomach. I've told my base things they really didn't want to hear on entitlements and the public option and the Bush tax cuts. I pushed health-care reform over the finish line even after the polls had dropped and everyone was saying it would be my Waterloo. I've proven that I'll lead. I need some Republicans to lead, too. That's the only way this works. Yes, in the front.

Q: In Wednesday's Politico, Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write that, and I'm quoting, "D.C' turns on Obama," They say that "Republicans have waited five years for the moment to put the screws to Obama — and they have one-third of all congressional committees on the case now. Establishment Democrats, never big fans of this president to begin with, are starting to speak out. And reporters are tripping over themselves to condemn lies, bullying and shadiness in the Obama administration." Can you govern in this town without the support of this town?

OBAMA: Are you serious?

Q: Um, yes?

OBAMA: Let me be clear. I hate this town. If it hates me back, well, I welcome its hatred. I take that as a badge of honor. The place Politico means when it talks about D.C. -- which is a place, by the way, that doesn't include 97.5 percent of the people who live in the actual Washington, D.C. -- is a bad city with bad values and I'm ashamed to be part of it.

You guys always want me to tell you what I'm doing wrong. 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 peoples' problems. Every moment I spend doing that is a moment I'm not checking up on the implementation on 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. And today is part of my repentance.

Q: But Mr. President, if LBJ had taken that attitude, would we really have gotten the Great Society?

OBAMA: Oh, Jesus Christ. [drops mic]

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