The President In Profile: 'The Magic Can't Last Forever'
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
President Obama has now been in the White House for five years and the fifth year has been a rough ride: The Snowden leaks about NSA surveillance, the dysfunctional debut of Healthcare.gov, Syria's crossing of the president's own declared red line leading him to the brink of air strikes that his own party rebelled at. How Barack Obama processes these events is a theme of David Remnick's story in the current issue of The New Yorker, "Going the Distance."
Remnick, who is the magazine's editor, also wrote the 2011 biography, "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama." And he joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program once again.
DAVID REMNICK: Good to talk to you.
SIEGEL: First, does President Obama acknowledge that this has been a terrible year for him, one that has witnessed his approval ratings going down?
REMNICK: I think it's so undeniable that even he has to admit it. And he certainly has to travel the country and enact his fury at the rollout of Obamacare, which was really self-inflicted.
SIEGEL: Self-inflicted meaning when he says: I take responsibility for this, does he seem to feel that responsibility?
REMNICK: I think so and you can't blame the Republican Congress or only up to a degree. That rollout was a classic botch. And the best they can do is say look, Social Security when it rolled out was also a bit of a botch and then it got fixed very quickly, and nobody remembers anything other than the fact that it's an incredibly popular program.
SIEGEL: There's an accusation against Barack Obama that you always hear in Washington: He lacks the necessary gregariousness for the job. Senior members of Congress, even Democrats, seldom see him socially. And the argument goes his daily dinner with his wife and daughters is personally admirable, but presidentially it's a waste of time. What does he say about that?
REMNICK: Well, he makes no excuses for the fact that he likes to have dinner with his family. And I know he feels that personal relationships are important only on the margins. And his difficulties with Congress don't have anything to do with schmoozing. They have to do with the fact that there is a transformed, radicalized Republican Party. It's deeply, deeply conservative and deeply devoted to blocking the Democratic Party agenda at every move. And this was not always the case historically, whether you had a president who knew how to break arms and cajole people or not.
SIEGEL: So his view is he could play golf with John Boehner every weekend and it would make no difference whatever?
REMNICK: I think only at the margins, that he could play golf with Boehner or have a drink with Mitch McConnell, and do that night after night. And it would not change the fact that somebody like Lindsey Graham at home faces a challenge from where? The Democratic Party, no. He's facing challenges from four different candidates from the Tea Party, so that Lindsey Graham begins to seem like a moderate or centrist in our political geography.
And that's not what our political geography look like it in the days of Lyndon Johnson, when you had actual liberals in the Republican Party and centrists. And you also had a different kind of party discipline where the president could get a committee chairman on board - or threaten a committee chairman or make a deal - and you would have discipline throughout the party. Everybody is his own or her own political actor now in Congress.
SIEGEL: But apart from that political reading of the Congress and the Republican Party, you watched President Obama travel. How long were you with him actually?
REMNICK: I was on a three-day trip where he was raising funds in one preposterous mansion after another in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles. And I've gone down to the White House any number of times but had hours of on the record interviews and other contact that was really useful.
SIEGEL: One of the first things that happens in your story, in your time with him, was the deal with Iran emerging - the nuclear deal emerging. And I gather he was very surprised by the criticism he got for that. Fair?
REMNICK: I think that's fair. I think he is especially more than surprised. I think he's pretty outraged by the fact that there were so many Democrats that seem more interested in the point of view of Bibi Netanyahu and the Saudi leadership, than in their party leader and president.
So that the morning after the Iran deal was signed, Chuck Schumer went on the Sunday shows. And without any fear of punishment from the president or the party leadership, simply pronounced that he was going to possibly favor increased sanctions against Iran, which would really be counterproductive for the deal as it is at this point. And he's not the only one: Cory Booker, Gillibrand.
I mean there are a lot of Democrats that talk in this vein, forcing Obama to say if such a bill came to his desk he'd have to veto it. That's the kind of fluidity and lack of party discipline and the atmosphere of Washington that Obama faces. That's just the fact of how Washington is these days.
SIEGEL: But you don't see that as an example of the lack of fear that Barack Obama has inspired in members of his own party; that you will not get what you want from this administration if you don't show some discipline.
REMNICK: Well, look. If you're a senator from Alaska and you're a Democrat, you already feel endangered, you already feel on the brink of extinction. So a Democratic senator from Alaska goes to the administration and wants a big favor, a road deal, and he gets it. And then it comes time for a crucial vote on gun control, there's no way that senator is going to vote for gun control, because that'll be the last vote he ever makes.
By the way, I'm not saying this is necessarily a terrible thing. The old days of strict party discipline and smoke-filled rooms and deals done over dinner had real demerits too.
SIEGEL: In his first term, I mean this is a president who was given the Nobel Peace Prize essentially for being Barack Obama and getting elected. He hadn't been in office...
REMNICK: And not being George W. Bush.
SIEGEL: And not being George W. Bush.
SIEGEL: Now you find a president who has to spend time defending second-rate IT work on the Healthcare.gov website. Any sense there of where did the magic to my presidency go?
REMNICK: You know, at one point I said to him: Don't you find that there is a certain sector of your base that has gravitated now away from you and toward people like Elizabeth Warren or even Bill de Blasio? And he said: Look, this is the most natural thing in the world. You know, we live in this media-saturated country and the magic can't last forever, and in some ways the caravan marches on.
William Daley, his former chief of staff, told my colleague Ryan Lizza that after 2014 - politically speaking - no one cares what Barack Obama does. Now a lot can happen between 2014 and 2016 in any number of areas where the president is essential. But what he means is that the air goes out of the room, our political attention starts turning and lame-duckness sets in. And, of course, he's faced with the Congress that he's faced with.
So the notion of enacting big programs, big legislation, ambitious work on climate change or income inequality - all these things that he held so dearly in the second inaugural, it already looks quite bleak.
SIEGEL: David Remnick, thank you for talking with us once again.
REMNICK: Always a pleasure.
SIEGEL: That's David Remnick whose article in The New Yorker, based on recent interviews with Barack Obama, is called "Going the Distance."
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