A Day With the Ever-So-Cautious Mr. Obama

David Remnick has a profile of President Obama in the New Yorker this week. It’s about a million words long and you will learn virtually nothing new about Obama from it. But this is not really Remnick’s fault, I think, so much as it is Obama’s. He’s a guy who’s preternaturally cautious and careful in his public speaking, as he is here when asked a question about marijuana:

Obama leaned back and let a moment go by. That’s one of his moves. When he is interviewed, particularly for print, he has the habit of slowing himself down, and the result is a spool of cautious lucidity. He speaks in paragraphs and with moments of revision. Sometimes he will stop in the middle of a sentence and say, “Scratch that,” or, “I think the grammar was all screwed up in that sentence, so let me start again.”

Having a president who stops to think a bit before he answers a question is no bad thing. It’s better than the alternative, anyway. But there’s not much question that it’s also a boring thing. Remnick seems to have had several hours of access to Obama, and yet the only part of his piece that’s gotten any attention is Obama’s suggestion—after leaning back and letting a moment go by—that although he thinks pot smoking is a bad habit, a bad idea, a waste of time, and not very healthy, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

I scoured the rest of the piece for something even remotely new, or even just a telling detail, but I didn’t find anything. This is perhaps the closest I could come up with:

“Politics was a strange career choice for Obama,” David Frum, a conservative columnist, told me. “Most politicians are not the kind of people you would choose to have as friends…..[But] Obama is exactly like all my friends. He would rather read a book than spend time with people he doesn’t know or like.”

….“There have been times where I’ve been constrained by the fact that I had two young daughters who I wanted to spend time with—and that I wasn’t in a position to work the social scene in Washington,” Obama told me. But, as Malia and Sasha have grown older, the Obamas have taken to hosting occasional off-the-record dinners in the residence upstairs at the White House. The guests ordinarily include a friendly political figure, a business leader, a journalist. Obama drinks a Martini or two (Rove was right about that), and he and the First Lady are welcoming, funny, and warm. The dinners start at six. At around ten-thirty at one dinner last spring, the guests assumed the evening was winding down. But when Obama was asked whether they should leave, he laughed and said, “Hey, don’t go! I’m a night owl! Have another drink.” The party went on past 1 A.M.

Obama is loosening up a little! These are still “occasional” dinners, mind you, and include only friendly figures. Still, the guy enjoys them so much that at least one of them didn’t break up until the wee hours.

And that’s that. Maybe this isn’t so unusual. Most presidents, especially by their sixth year, have pretty settled policies and pretty settled views. They know the danger of speaking out of turn, and it’s unlikely they’re going to have much trouble sticking to their script during an interview. Obama sure doesn’t. His answer to nearly every question is to pause; acknowledge that it’s a thorny issue; allow that his opponents have some good points; and then provide a careful, nuanced version of his own views.

Nothing wrong with that, I guess, and I’m hardly in a position to complain. Interviewing me would be every bit as dull. Still, it’s too bad Obama won’t grant access of the kind Remnick got to a different kind of journalist. Not a fan and not a foe, but someone who’s both smart and skeptical. Frum might actually be a decent example of that: someone who could seriously challenge him from the other side without obviously being there to do a hatchet job. Who knows? We might actually learn something new about our 44th president from an interview like that.


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