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Putting the President on the Couch

How has he changed?

IN HIS CAMPAIGN boilerplate, President Obama would charmingly joke about how the presidency had grayed his hair. But as a memoirist with a capacity for startling detachment, he has surely pondered all the deeper ways in which the last four years—and the last brutal campaign—have transformed him. We invited three leading Obama-ologists to discuss the man who has emerged on the other side of his first term. As an architect of financial reform, Barney Frank watched the president while he was buffeted by Wall Street and brokered deals with Congress. Ron Suskind reported deep into Obama’s handling of the financial crisis in Confidence Men. And David Maraniss traveled from Kenya to Hawaii in pursuit of his biography, Barack Obama: The Story. Here’s a conversation I had with them on the Friday after Election Day.
—Franklin Foer

FRANKLIN FOER: Let’s start with the first debate. There have been all sorts of superficial explanations for why Obama bombed, and I’m curious if any of you had a deeper explanation for the debacle other than David Axelrod gave him some bum advice about playing it cool.

RON SUSKIND: There was a comment Obama made to me in February 2011 that echoed as I watched the debate. He said, “What I learned about leadership in this office is it’s not so much about me being confident. It’s about helping the American people feel confident.” And here’s the thing: Obama has trouble expressing confidence that he feels is not fairly earned. He has trouble flipping the switch and being false even though politicians are often asked to do that. That’s why I think he was fumbling and looking down and generally feeling very uncomfortable.

BARNEY FRANK: I think there is a temptation for journalists to give more explanation than is there. It seems to me he had a lousy night. I understand what Ron is saying, but how does that explain the fact that he was much better in the next two debates? I’m not sure, but I do know this: Debates are one of the worst things you have to go through as a candidate. They are really just awful. They’re tough, you’re worried about the slightest kind of mistake, and maybe he was overcautious because of that.

DAVID MARANISS: To answer Barney’s question about why did he do so well in the second and third debates but not the first, I think that was predictable, too. Obama is an incredibly competitive person, and when the chips are really down, he comes through really well. I also think he was stunned by [Mitt] Romney’s capacity to completely change his story in front of him and present himself as a moderate at the first debate.

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FRANK: I agree he was taken by surprise by Romney’s shifting. He was over-prepared to attack the right-wing Romney. But if you think about it, that in itself was a great failure! Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch-ing was a huge part of the campaign.

There’s one other problem, and that’s the format. With these debates, you’re not allowed to bring in documents, so they become a “you said, I said” situation. Without documents, it’s easier to lie.

FOER: Do you worry that Obama’s not confrontational enough? He still seems to want to be the guy who brings Washington together.

FRANK: In his 2008 campaign, his whole argument was, “Oh, we want to get away from the fighting of the Clintons; we want to get away from all this bitterness and partisanship.” I was troubled by that, because I thought that it was unrealistic—that, knowing what I thought I knew about the Republican Party, he was not going to be able to carry it out. I was most troubled when he said he was going to govern in a post-partisan manner—I told one of his people that he gave me post-partisan depression when he said that. And it’s clearly the case that he came on too soft.

But the paradox is this: This is a guy who takes on incredible challenges. He ran against Bobby Rush, which was a big uphill battle, which he lost. And then he ran for the Senate, and he kind of lucked out there with the Jack Ryan sex scandal—he was the beneficiary of the weakness of heterosexual marriage. And then he ran for president and won that, too. So, yes, he does appear to be overconfident in his ability to talk people into things, but I don’t understand how that goes along with a record of taking on very, very difficult challenges and being mostly successful.

FOER: Ron, do you agree with that paradox?

SUSKIND: Until he arrived at the White House, Obama had never exercised power in almost any way. Obviously, he was in a campaign, but [David] Axelrod tried to keep him up above the fray, and then he had to sit in the Oval Office atop the most complex managerial organization on the planet. And I think he was afraid to pull a Lyndon Johnson and say to the Republicans, “Look, this is not personal, but you’ve got to move, and I’m going to make you move with the power and the capital I’ve got.” People say you can’t do that these days, but the fact is he has wrestled with how power gets exercised, and I think he’s gotten better at it.

I’m sure Obama thinks he missed some opportunities early on because he wasn’t confrontational enough. There was the “thirteen bankers” meeting at the end of March in 2009 that was a time of great opportunity. Both the financial services and health care communities were terrified that Obama would work his will, and frankly many of them I talked to afterwards said, “We were ready to basically bare our chest and say, ‘Pick up the sword.’” He did not pick up that sword, and that’s one of the failures of his presidency.

FRANK: I will say in his defense that he was under enormous pressure from the media and the respectables in Washington to be bipartisan at first, to reach out, to work together. And another thing in his defense: He came out of a situation in which we the Democrats, who were in control of the Congress, had in fact done that for George W. Bush. In late 2007, Bush went to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and said, “I need a stimulus.” And they gave him one. And then we cooperated nicely with Hank Paulson. It was a great moment of bipartisanship. But when Obama took office, the curtain came down. 

FOER: Wall Street didn’t give him much respect either. And one of the things I found most interesting about the campaign is that Obama adopted a much more populist stance. Was he just trying to create some separation between himself and Romney the Plutocrat, or do you think he’ll actually be tougher on Wall Street this time around?

SUSKIND: I think one of the surprises of his second term could be Obama saying, “I am going to be the agent of tough love in terms of creating a sound and sustainable model for the American financial system.” He’s wanted to do fairly progressive things for a while now, like adopt a financial transaction tax. Remember that he gave a speech at the NASDAQ in the fall of 2007 about the need for structural change, and that he gave the same speech, but even more forcefully, the following spring at Cooper Union. It’s just that people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner prevented him from going as far as he wanted.

FRANK: Yes, he’s clearly moving in a more populist direction. I think he was very unpleasantly surprised by the intransigence of the financial community, just like he was with the Republican Party. He learned that conciliation wasn’t going to get him anywhere. So I believe you’re going to see tough laws getting implemented. You’re going to see a tougher Volcker Rule. And talk about the Bourbons forgetting nothing, because they’ve learned nothing: When the Financial Services Roundtable picked Tim Pawlenty to be their chief executive, that was astonishing. That was just an extraordinary degree of “Hey, we never did anything wrong, we’re wonderful, how dare you!”

FOER: Do you think that Obama is a liberal at his core?

FRANK: Yes, he’s a liberal—in particular, he’s one who’s motivated by economic justice. And the moderation I’ve seen with him has been more procedural than substantive. He’s just had this great confidence in his ability to talk other people into doing things. And that’s been problematic.

MARANISS: Barney’s right—the president is a pragmatic liberal. Above all, it’s just that he wants to win. He was even that way as a community organizer—and let’s not forget that he drove his colleagues and mentors a bit crazy then, too, by not being confrontational enough. But he learned an essential lesson back then that still guides him: Think of the world as you want it to be, but look at the world as it is and try to deal within that reality.

SUSKIND: I really believe that Obama is appreciating the benefits of toughness now. It’s not natural for him to push his finger into people’s chests and threaten them. But he realizes that, without fear, hope can be pretty hollow.

FOER: Over the course of the campaign, Obama was forced to fling himself into Bill Clinton’s arms and to hold his whole administration up as kind of a model. Do you think that was sincere?

FRANK: Look, I give him credit. There did not appear to be any envy or reluctance. He could have said, “Geez, I fought this guy, and he said bad things about me, and I don’t need him now.” But he was willing, very sensibly, to take full advantage of Clinton.

MARANISS: Their relationship is just so fascinating for all of us to watch, because there’s so much under the water. They’re both pragmatic politicians in a business where there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends. And they really needed each other this year. Still, I think one major difference between the two men is that, as talented as Clinton was, and as much as he got accomplished, really the motivating factor in his second term was survival. Obama’s is to try to be great.

FRANK: That’s right. We’re now talking about Obama moving a little bit more toward the left in his second term, a little bit more toward the populists. But Clinton moved the other way over time. He started more militant and became more centrist.

FOER: That’s interesting because second terms are historically seen as the time when presidents resort to a managerial sort of role, when they trim their sails a bit.

MARANISS: First of all, let’s give Obama credit that he did pass something huge in his first term. And health care is going to survive now. That’s big. But here’s why I think his second term could be quite extraordinary: His whole life he has tried to find his way around traps—ones that the world set up for him and ones that his own personality created. And I think he has mostly figured out how to get around them in his own life, and to the degree that it’s possible in the presidency, with the understanding that there are a million things that can happen that you can’t predict and are intractable, I think he’s pretty close to working it out again.

He is working from a position of greater strength after his reelection, and he has a chance—a chance—to work out a deficit agreement that does not stunt job growth and the recovery, to find some common ground on immigration, and to set his administration toward the hard work of dealing with climate change.

SUSKIND: I think that he has a bit of “would that I knew then what I know now,” and that’s why I think it could be a very interesting time in terms of what he does with his renewed mandate and this fresh hundred days. One of the things that Obama understands is how in those first hundred days in 2009—and there was a lot of talk in the White House about this very thing—they just dropped the ball in terms of directing the Obama army. Not just the folks from the campaign, but the two million people who showed up at the Mall on Inauguration Day in absolutely freezing weather to cheer and to cry. The question is: Can Obama direct the participatory energies of the left in a way that will express power for him inside of the Capitol? He didn’t even try last time.

MARANISS: Part of that in 2009 was his attempt to make a distinction between campaigning and governing. And he was reacting to a certain degree to the Clinton model of a permanent campaign, parts of which he didn’t like. And I think he’s learned what parts of it are not only useful, but necessary. 

FOER: It goes to a deeper question. I’m sure you saw the quote in New York magazine—which has been disputed—about how it’s strange for him to be in politics given how little he likes people. That seemed a bit strong to me.

MARANISS: Yes, that’s strong. He doesn’t like dealing with people that he doesn’t really like is the difference.

FOER: But sometimes he seems sullen about having to go through a lot of the daily mechanics of politics, as if there’s something about Washington that’s eating at him.

MARANISS: I think it’s that he has to find his own way to feeling authentic. It’s very important to him to have that sense of authenticity. He’ll never have the need for people that someone like Clinton did, but that was a narcissistic need. Clinton would call up a friend to watch him do a crossword puzzle. And Barack Obama is a very different personality in that sense. He’s never going to schmooze with Congress as much as people want him to. That’s not him. But when he gets to a certain comfort level, and he feels good about the politics that he’s in at a particular point, then yes, he can enjoy himself. And I certainly noticed it in the last week of the campaign.

SUSKIND: Right. When he feels divided or disconnected—“Oh I don’t like doing that; that isn’t the true me”—he often freezes up or he just backs away. I think what you’re finding, though, is that he finally understands how he needs to lead in order to establish his legacy.

When I was leaving the Oval Office with him, we started talking about how he’s always looking at the horizon line, how he’s always worried about what he’ll be remembered for. And we talked about how the guys behind him on the mantel there, Lincoln and King, they didn’t think all that much day to day about their legacies. They got up and they looked at the landscape, and they said, “I’m going to fight today and hopefully I’ll have forward motion by the time I collapse in bed tonight.” And I think that Obama has learned that, by focusing so hard on his legacy, he has missed what’s right in front of him, particularly in terms of his opportunity to exercise the unique powers of his office. Now, let’s see if he’ll be able to rise to the next level as a president of the United States.

Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic; Barney Frank is the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’ 4th District; Ron Suskind is the author, most recently, of Confidence Men; David Maraniss is the author, most recently, of Barack Obama: The Story. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Putting the president on the Couch.”