Peter Baker, one of the nation’s finest and fairest political reporters, has written an illuminating story for the New York Times Magazine. “Education of a President” is based on interviews with Barack Obama and a dozen of his advisers.
There are three overriding impression I took away from the piece, beginning with how much events are humbling the president and his top aides. “This is an administration that feels shellshocked,” Baker writes. “Many officials worry, they say, that the best days of the Obama presidency are behind them.” One aide confessed to Baker, “We’re all a lot more cynical now.” In their darkest moments, Baker informs us, “White House aides wonder aloud whether it is even possible for a modern president to succeed.”
The second takeaway from Baker’s piece is how the blame for Obama’s failures rests with everyone else. “Washington is even more broken than we thought,” one aide tells Baker. The system “is not on the level” — a phrase commonly used around the West Wing meaning “Republicans, the news media, the lobbyists, the whole Washington culture is not serious about solving problems.” Obama himself says, “Given how much stuff was coming at us, we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right.” (Read: we were too virtuous for our own good.)
The third impression from Baker’s article is the degree of self-pity and moral and intellectual superiority that remains so prevalent in the Obama White House. “The view from inside the administration starts with a basic mantra,” Baker writes. “Obama inherited the worst problems of any president in years. Or in generations. Or in American history.” Obama does little to disguise his disdain for Washington and the conventions of modern politics, Baker writes. He has little patience for what Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser, calls “the inevitable theatrics of Washington.” And in his conversation with Baker, Obama used some variation of the phrase “they’re not serious” four times in referring to Republican budget plans. One prominent Democratic lawmaker told Baker that Obama “always believes he is the smartest person in any room.”
The White House, then, is characterized by habitual vanity, rising cynicism, collapsing morale, and increasing resentment toward politics and governing, itself. Having worked in the White House for most of two terms, I understand that life there can present an array of challenges. Still, those working in the Obama White House seem utterly devoid of any enchantment and joy rooted in an appreciation of history — the kind of that that makes working in the White House, even on the worst days, an honor beyond measure.
In writing about Edward Grey, John Buchan told about how he had been the most fortunate of mortals, for he had everything — health, beauty, easy means, a great reputation, innumerable friends. One by one, the sources of his happiness vanished, yet Grey persevered. “Under the buffetings of life he never winced or complained,” Buchan writes, “and the spectacle of his gentle fortitude was . . . an inspiration.”
Later in Pilgrim’s Way, Buchan, in describing himself, says, “I was brought up in times when one was not ashamed to be happy, and I have never learned the art of discontent.”
The White House today seems to be inhabited by people who have learned the art of discontent. Some day, it may dawn on them what a privilege and gift their White House years really were. But by then, the moment will be gone with the wind.