President Obama’s Chait Chat


New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait conducted a wide-ranging one-on-one interview with President Barack Obama for this week’s cover story. It’s an episodic look at the Obama Presidency in the man’s own words. As far as I’m concerned, this is the money quote on his relationship with Congressional Republicans:

They’re looking at Charlie Crist down in Florida. One hug [from me] and he was toast. Chris Christie couldn’t get his presidential race launched — it was basically over before it started — because he was too friendly and cooperative with me in accepting federal aid for a state that had been devastated by a hurricane. They’re imagining the potential problems that arise, so it’s pretty hard for them to publicly say, “Obama’s a perfectly reasonable guy, but we just can’t work with him because our base thinks he’s the Antichrist.” It’s a lot easier for them to say, “Oh, the guy’s not listening to us,” or, “He’s uncompromising.” I understand that, it’s not something that has bothered me personally. In fact, sometimes I tease them about it behind the scenes; I’ll tell them, “Look, if you need some help, me attacking you or you know …” And the times where we have gotten things done, it has been very important for me to, frankly, help them try to manage their base.

The President is too polite to say that race was at the root of the Republican base’s fear and loathing of the first black Oval One, but we all know that it is. They wanted him to “show your papers, boy,” that’s what birtherism was all about. Historians will look back at our time and go WTF? Barack Obama is a decent, honest, well-intentioned man whose political opponents pasted horns on his head, handed him a pitchfork and declared him SATAN. Chait calls it a “cold civil war” and that sums it up perfectly. I’ve lived through it and still say WTF?

Another interesting passage in the President’s Chait chat is this exchange:

The dynamic you’re describing sounds like what we saw played out in the 2016 Republican primaries. Do you see a straight line between what you saw at the beginning of 2009 and—

Absolutely. I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the tea party, and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican Party. Whether that changes, I think, will depend in part on the outcome of this election, but it’s also going to depend on the degree of self-reflection inside the Republican Party. There have been at least a couple of other times that I’ve said confidently that the fever is going to have to break, but it just seems to get worse.

Throughout American history, we’ve elected Presidents in reaction to their predecessors. Change has usually involved differences in style and personality as well as policy and party labels. The extroverted, dimwitted Warren Gamaliel Harding succeeded the austere intellectual Professor/President Woodrow Wilson. General Eisenhower promised statesmanlike dignity after Harry Truman’s loud shirts, feisty rhetoric, and poker playing. Jack Kennedy, in turn, promised youthful vigah after 8 years of Ike who Gore Vidal called the Great Golfer. Jimmy Carter promised to never lie to the American people (a promise that was impossible to keep) in the wake of  Vietnam, Watergate and the mendacity of Johnson and Nixon on those subjects. So it goes.

Even losing candidates run against the sitting President of their day: Donald Trump is a vulgar, tempestuous and anti-intellectual Ferengi whereas Barack Obama is a calm, rational, and intelligent Vulcan. I’ll take Mr. Spock over the Grand Nagus any day. Trump’s very crudity and tendency to meltdown has made No Drama Obama look better and better all the time, hence the spike in his approval ratings.

I’d like to thank New York Magazine for publishing the Chait chat and President Obama for always taking the long view and never, ever panicking. Historians will view him kindly after they get done scratching their heads and wondering WTF?