It’s a long article, but worth the read: “Going the Distance: On and off the road with Barack Obama,” by David Remnick. Here are a few amusing excerpts:
He sighed, slumping in his chair. The night before, Iran had agreed to freeze its nuclear program for six months. A final pact, if one could be arrived at, would end the prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the hell that could follow: terror attacks, proxy battles, regional war—take your pick. An agreement could even help normalize relations between the United States and Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. Obama put the odds of a final accord at less than even, but, still, how was this not good news?….
The question is whether Obama will satisfy the standard he set for himself. His biggest early disappointment as President was being forced to recognize that his romantic vision of a post-partisan era, in which there are no red states or blue states, only the United States, was, in practical terms, a fantasy. It was a difficult fantasy to relinquish. The spirit of national conciliation was more than the rhetorical pixie dust of Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, in Boston, which had brought him to delirious national attention. It was also an elemental component of his self-conception, his sense that he was uniquely suited to transcend ideology and the grubby battles of the day….
The structures of American division came into high relief once he was in office. The debate over the proper scale and scope of the federal government dates to the Founders, but it has intensified since the Reagan revolution. Both Bill Clinton and Obama have spent as much time defending progressive advances—from Social Security and Medicare to voting rights and abortion rights—as they have trying to extend them. The Republican Party is living through the late-mannerist phase of that revolution, fuelled less by ideas than by resentments. The moderate Republican tradition is all but gone, and the reactionaries who claim Reagan’s banner display none of his ideological finesse. Rejection is all. Obama can never be opposed vehemently enough….
“We didn’t expect the floodgates would open and Boehner would be Tip O’Neill to our Reagan,” Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to the President, said….
The popular opposition to the Administration comes largely from older whites who feel threatened, underemployed, overlooked, and disdained in a globalized economy and in an increasingly diverse country….
“You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government—that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable—and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states’ rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy.”…
For the moment, though, the opposition party is content to define itself, precisely, by its opposition. As Obama, a fan of the “Godfather” movies, has put it, “It turns out Marlon Brando had it easy, because, when it comes to Congress, there is no such thing as an offer they can’t refuse.”…
In 2011, at an annual dinner he holds at the White House with American historians, he asked the group to help him find a language in which he could address the problem of growing inequality without being accused of class warfare….
“The President always takes the long view.”…
As Obama ticked off a list of first-term achievements—the economic rescue, the forty-four straight months of job growth, a reduction in carbon emissions, a spike in clean-energy technology….
This is the archetypal Obama habit of mind and politics, the calm, professorial immersion in complexity played out in front of ardent supporters who crave a rallying cry….
You could hear the murmur of security communications: “Renegade with greeters”—Renegade being Obama’s Secret Service handle….
Since taking the job with Obama, in 2009, Nicholson has played golf with the President well over a hundred times. The Speaker of the House has played with him once….
When Obama does ask Republicans to a social occasion, he is sometimes rebuffed. In the fall of 2012….
The politician sensitive to winds and currents was visible in Obama’s coy talk of his “evolving” position on gay marriage. Obama conceded in one of our later conversations only that it’s “fair to say that I may have come to that realization slightly before I actually made the announcement” favoring gay marriage, in May of 2012. “But this was not a situation where I kind of did a wink and a nod and a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn.” The turn may not have been a sudden one-eighty; to say that your views are “evolving,” though, is to say there is a position that you consider to be more advanced than the one you officially hold. And he held the “evolved” position in 1996, when, as a candidate for the Illinois state senate, he filled out a questionnaire from Outlines, a local gay and lesbian newspaper, saying, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages”….
“But I can tell you that I will measure myself at the end of my Presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society”…
“You have an economy,” Obama told me, “that is ruthlessly squeezing workers and imposing efficiencies that make our flat-screen TVs really cheap but also puts enormous downward pressure on wages and salaries. That’s making it more and more difficult not only for African-Americans or Latinos to get a foothold into the middle class but for everybody—large majorities of people—to get a foothold in the middle class or to feel secure there….
And he has not hesitated in his public rhetoric to acknowledge, however subtly, the abuses, as well as the triumphs, of American power. He remembers going with his mother to live in Indonesia, in 1967—shortly after a military coup, engineered with American help, led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. This event, and the fact that so few Americans know much about it, made a lasting impression on Obama….
The right’s response has been to accuse Obama of conducting a foreign policy of apology….Josef Joffe, the hawkish editor of Die Zeit, the highbrow German weekly, told me, “There is certainly consistency and coherence in his attempt to retract from the troubles of the world, to get the U.S. out of harm’s way, in order to do ‘a little nation-building at home,’ as he has so often put it. If you want to be harsh about it, he wants to turn the U.S. into a very large medium power, into an XXL France or Germany.”…
Obama may resist the idealism of a previous generation of interventionists, but his realism, if that’s what it is, diverges from the realism of Henry Kissinger or Brent Scowcroft. “It comes from the idea that change is organic and change comes to countries in its own way, modernization comes in its own way, rather than through liberation narratives coming from the West,” Fareed Zakaria, a writer on foreign policy whom Obama reads and consults, says. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who worked at the State Department as Hillary Clinton’s director of policy planning, says, “Obama has a real understanding of the limits of our power. It’s not that the United States is in decline; it’s that sometimes the world has problems without the tools to fix them.” Members of Obama’s foreign-policy circle say that when he is criticized for his reaction to situations like Iran’s Green Revolution, in 2009, or the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, in 2011, he complains that people imagine him to have a “joystick” that allows him to manipulate precise outcomes….
Administration officials are convinced that their efforts to toughen the sanctions on Iran caused tremendous economic pain and helped Hassan Rouhani win popular support in the Iranian Presidential elections last year. Although Rouhani is no liberal—he has revolutionary and religious credentials, which is why he was able to run—he was not Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s favored candidate….
Khamenei is an opaque, cautious figure, Administration officials say, but he clearly acceded to Rouhani as he saw the political demands of the population shift….
Members of Obama’s team believe that the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, who are now allied as never before, want the U.S. to be their proxy in a struggle not merely for de-nuclearization in Iran but for regime change—and that is not on the Administration’s agenda, except, perhaps, as a hope….
“It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare….
“It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.”…
“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines”….
“But I do think that some of the anti-government rhetoric, anti-tax rhetoric, anti-spending rhetoric that began before Reagan but fully flowered with the Reagan Presidency accelerated trends that were already existing, or at least robbed us of some tools to deal with the downsides of globalization and technology, and that with just some modest modification we could grow this economy faster and benefit more people and provide more opportunity.”…
Obama has every right to claim a long list of victories since he took office: ending two wars; an economic rescue, no matter how imperfect; strong Supreme Court nominations; a lack of major scandal; essential support for an epochal advance in the civil rights of gays and lesbians; more progressive executive orders on climate change, gun control, and the end of torture; and, yes, health-care reform….
“I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every President, like every person,” Obama said. “I do think one of my strengths is temperament”…
A little while later, as we were leaving the Oval Office and walking under the colonnade, Obama said, “I just wanted to add one thing to that business about the great-man theory of history. The President of the United States cannot remake our society, and that’s probably a good thing.” He paused yet again, always self-editing. “Not ‘probably,’ ” he said. “It’s definitely a good thing.”