Forget all the focus on the one ugly word President Obama used. Pay attention, instead, to the rest of the words in his podcast interview. They offer a remarkable self-portrait of a president in the second half of his second term, both chastened and liberated.
I must confess a sniffy preference for presidential sit-downs with newspapers and Sunday shows, not grungy garages cluttered with “Gimme Shelter” posters and old guitars. I am more inclined to “Face the Nation” than “WTF.”
But there is value to sneaking a glimpse behind the heavy presidential curtain, which is where comedian Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast succeeded best. Politicians talk so much in public that it is rare to pierce the rhetorical autopilot and expose the human being underneath.
So when Maron made the odd-sounding, possibly “insulting” observation that the presidency was something of a middle-management position, Obama surprisingly ended up agreeing:
“When I ran in 2008, there were those posters out there: ‘Hope’ and ‘Change.’ And those are capturing aspirations about where we should be going. . . . As soon as you start talking about specifics, then the world’s complicated, and there’s choices that you have to make. And it turns out that the trajectory of progress always happens in fits and starts. And you’ve got these big legacy systems that you have to wrestle with, and you have to balance what you want and where you’re going with what is and what has been. . . .
“Yes, it’s like middle management. Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work. Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements and to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south. So that 10 years from now suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were, but at the moment . . . people may feel like we need a 50-degree turn, we don’t need a two-degree turn. . . . You just can’t turn 50 degrees. And it’s not just because of corporate lobbyists. It’s not just because of big money. It’s because societies don’t turn 50 degrees. Democracies certainly don’t turn 50 degrees.”
Obama no doubt understood, at least intellectually, the frustrations and limitations of the democratic process before he took the oath of office. He knew the unwieldiness of the battleship. But this sober assessment of the possibility of transformative change reflects a remarkable distance from the swept-away rhetoric of his first campaign.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” Obama said on election night 2008.
Seven long years later, Garage Obama’s answer is far more subdued, almost deflated.
There remains a certain infuriating grandiosity; see, for example, the overuse of the first-person pronoun: “When I take an unemployment rate of 10 percent down to 5.5 percent, when I drive the uninsured rate to the lowest it’s ever been, when I restore people’s 401(k)s.”
Still, this president speaks in terms of “a lot more hits than misses,” not of launching “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow.” He knows, from painful experience, that the latest mass killing, no matter how appalling, is not going to magically produce gun legislation.
But Garage Obama is also freed up, beyond simply using the N-word.
“I actually think I’m a better president and would be a better candidate if I were running again than I ever have been,” he told Maron. “And it’s sort of like an athlete — you might slow down a little bit, you might not jump as high as you used to, but I know what I’m doing and I’m fearless. . . .
“And also part of that fearlessness is, because you’ve screwed up enough times, that you know that it’s all happened. I’ve been through this. I’ve screwed up. I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls. And I emerged and I lived. And that’s always such a liberating feeling, right?”
This is the point Obama was making at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, when he talked about having “something that rhymes with bucket list,’’ citing his executive action on immigration, Cuba and climate.
There is, indeed, a certain WTF quality to the denouement of Obama’s presidency, unmoored from party and eyeing the clock. It emerged in the setting, unlikely but intimate, of a Los Angeles garage as a sniper patrolled the roof to protect the middle manager in chief.