Friday, January 28, 2011

The Remaking of the President by John Heilemann

In the most recent cover story of New York Magazine, John Heilemann sets out with an ambitious agenda. With a title as grandiose as "The Remaking of the President," Heileman must deliver an article that explains three things:

1) What Barack Obama previously stood for
2) The reasons why our president needs to be "remade" and
3) What the Obama administration will do in order to succeed, and how it will differ from the last two years

This story had the potential to become a messy, convoluted clusterfuck – and really, it's been written so much in the last month since Congress' lame-duck session concluded – but Heilemann skillfully covers these three points and has even managed to make it readable. Of course, the article will be devoured by anyone interested in the intricacies of politics, but he manages to also bring a very human aspect to the thought process behind all the dreary political strategizing. His goal, as a writer, is not just to explain to politico freaks where the Obama administration went wrong with the president's image; what Heilemann set out to do, and succeeded, is to get the average person excited once again about having a president that they elected into the White House.

I very much consider myself an average purveyor of politics – I don't have the stamina to follow it as closely as I'd like to, nor do I really have the rabid interest. In general, I try my best to keep my attention away from the 24-hour news coverage. Heileman seems to be aware of the general disinterest the public holds for our politicians. Sure, we read the big stories, but we don't really care to consume the minute, day-to-day details of the Obama administration or the obstacles they face. He knows this, and so weaved throughout all the political jargon of his story is a more personal narrative of our president.

By painting a picture of a president who is willing to explore new ways to connect with American citizens, Heilemann's very political article is actually a personal story in disguise. At the root of it, he has shown us that Obama is willing to change in order to become a better leader. This can sound somewhat self-serving, since the man has to face a re-election in 2012, but think about it in this way: Can you imagine our previous president ever changing despite the all-time low numbers that he received during his presidency? The famous "Decider" actually putting on his thinking cap to rationally consider consequences before moving forward? For anyone who said, "Well, maybe..." I need only to refer you to Matt Lauer's interview with Bush when he was making the rounds for his book tour. Even with no political gain in sight, Bush was still tap-tap-tap-dancing for pride's sake. Honestly, it was like watching an old friend constantly fucking up, and knowing that he fucked up, but never saying, "I'm sorry," or "Maybe I shouldn't have done that." We may know him well and accept him for who he is (hell, we had to for eight years) but that doesn't make it any less frustrating to watch.

As I said earlier, what really cemented Heilemann's article was the amount of very humanizing interviews about Obama from unnamed and named sources. Here's one I particularly liked:

Obama knew that the hardest change for him to make would be shattering his self-circumspection, but resolved to push himself to do so. "he's got an enormous capacity to do what he has to do when he recognizes he has to do it," the Democratic bigwig says. "During the campaign, he did a lot of things he didn't like to do, and he actually got pretty good at it. A lot of it was just the bullshit – the receptions, the glad-handling, all the stuff you have to do to be political. You have to be extrovert plus, and he will never be extroverted, much less plus. But he'll get better at this, because he knows he has to, and he will work at it."

You know the saying that a tiger will never change its stripes? Well, it must be a shitload harder for a president to do so because at least a tiger doesn't have all the major news networks watching its every move and putting an ulterior motive to its actions.

Obama's personal changes are also reflected in the changes within his administration, and Heilemann is able to clearly map out all the old players that are leaving (though who will still be present in some form in the re-election campaign) and the new players coming in. My favorite example that Heilemann latches on to show (not tell!) Obama's desire to make changes, despite it being outside of his comfort zone, is his appointment of Bill Daley as the new chief of staff, replacing Rahm Emanuel (who can now run for mayor in Chicago because that ridiculous residency kerfuffle is done and over with – thank you, Chicago Tribune, for publishing this very sensible Op-Ed. You're still one of my favorite newspapers.) He could have gone for Pete Rouse, an old Obama hand who stepped in during the transition period of Emanuel leaving his position, and whom Obama would have probably preferred in the role, if it were not for his administration's need for an outside perspective.

By a long shot, the easier and safer path would have been to stick with Rouse, a beloved figure in the White House whose permanent elevation would have been greeted by a standing ovation in the West Wing. But Obama had come to believe that, for all of Rouse's many and evident virtues, he needed new blood and new thinking, even if – especially if – it pushed him outside of his narrow comfort zone.

Does anyone remember how during the last leg of the campaign, everyone was freaking out because McCain had just announced his VP candidate (McCain, I will never – never – forgive you for bringing that woman into public consciousness. You are the reason a moose is dead.) and suddenly the game has completely changed? Remember this photo?

Obama's got it. He's a smart, capable man who, as Heilemann has so eloquently shown, is willing to admit his administration's shortcomings and make changes to it to get our country on the right track. Amidst the clusterfuck of hateful political rhetoric, the hypocritical Tea Partiers and the newly elected right's braggadocio, he still manages to come out with dignity.

(Photo: Pete Souza/The White House)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Obama Steps Up

"The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud."

(The full transcript can be found here.)

Here are some reactions:
Obama's Tucson Speech: Inspiration, but the Tone Surprised Some (CNN)
Fox News was Pretty Gaga Over Obama's Speech Last Night (Business Insider)
Obama Brings It Home (Gail Collins of NYT)