There have always been two not entirely consistent elements of Barack Obama’s powerful political appeal: his aspirational ambition and his personal sense of complexity and limits.
The aspirational — the promise of transcending our national divisions, resetting our relations with Russia and the Muslim world, slowing the rise of the oceans and healing the planet — is behind us. In a recent, remarkable interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, Obama admits as much. Assuming the role of political commentator, the president talks of being overexposed “after six, seven years of me being on the national stage” and asks, “Is there somebody else out there who can give [people] that spark of inspiration or excitement?” Perhaps someone else is the change we have been waiting for.
But it is exactly this objectivity — this ability to emotionally distance himself from, well, himself — that impresses many journalists and commentators. Remnick calls it the “archetypal Obama habit of mind and politics, the calm, professorial immersion in complexity.” Like many before him, Remnick is impressed with Obama’s “philosophical ambivalences” and his ability to “nimbly” argue the other side of debates.
Obama seems impressed with these traits as well. In the course of the interview, he states: “I’m not a purist.” And: “I’m pretty pragmatic.” And: “I’m not a particularly ideological person.” And: “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity.” On marijuana legalization, Obama convincingly argues for every possible side of the issue. On parenting, he favors both open-mindedness and structure. On federalism, he sees virtues and drawbacks. On pro football, he is a big fan but would not allow his son to play. Every question is an opportunity for a seminar.
I have to admit — like many people in the business of producing and distributing symbolic knowledge — that I love seminars. Writers, commentators, journalists and historians have often chosen their profession because they never wanted their late-night dorm room discussions to end. Those who write about politics have a natural affinity for Obama’s mode of discourse. This is not so much an ideological bias — though that can play a part — as a kinship of intellectual approach and style. Just as Middle America found Richard Nixon to be “one of us,” America’s knowledge class knows that Obama is very much like them.
Remnick’s portrait of Obama typically leaves out the less attractive side of the academic persona — the tendency to view opponents as rubes and knaves. Few presidents have more consistently or aggressively questioned the motives of their political rivals. None, to my knowledge, used an inaugural address the way Obama used his second — to accuse his opponents of mistaking “absolutism for principle” and treating “name-calling as reasoned debate,” and wanting the twilight years of seniors “spent in poverty” and ensuring that parents of disabled children have “nowhere to turn,” and reserving freedom “for the lucky.” Those outside the seminar aren’t treated quite as well.
But even judged on the terms of Remnick’s praise, Obama is in deep, second-term trouble. The president who embraces complexity is now besieged by complexity on every front. The U.S. health-care system has not responded as planned to the joystick manipulations of the Affordable Care Act. On the evidence of the article, Obama and his closest advisers are in denial about the structural failures of the program — the stingy coverage, narrow provider networks, high deductibles and adverse-selection spirals already underway in several states.
And complexity is not a sufficient word to describe the chaos in the Middle East. Here Remnick raises questions about the utility of ambivalence in Obama’s approach to Syria. In the article, the president recounts the careful, systematic study that preceded inaction, as more than 100,000 people died and U.S.-affiliated groups were crushed. “We have looked at this from every angle,” he insists.
In fact, at the outset of the struggle, Obama declared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go without having a plan to make him go. Then the Obama administration announced it would supply arms to the rebels, which never materialized on a serious scale. This is a case where disengagement has undermined national credibility and betrayed friends. Obama is likely to spend a portion of his post-presidency defending his studied inaction in the face of mass atrocities.
The largest question raised by the Remnick article goes unasked: Is the intellectual style that journalists find so amenable actually an effective governing strategy? The answer, it turns out, is complex.