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What Barack Obama Can Learn From His High School Self

Flattery, Chutzpah, and Underhandedness

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This spring, when Barack Obama failed to get the gun legislation passed that had been such a public priority for his administration, the Internet and airwaves were full of barbed historical comparisons. Why couldn’t he be more like Lyndon Johnson, wheeling and dealing and getting in Congress’s face until he got something done? Was he inherently unsuited to the messy business of actually getting his way?

No, it turns out. The evidence comes not in the form of legislation passed, but rather in a yearbook note from a young Barack Obama, published alongside his 1979 prom photo on today. The note—signed with a heart and “love”—was not to his own prom date, but that of his best friend Greg. It is a work of manipulative art, one from which the 2013 Obama could learn a few important lessons in flattery, chutzpah, and underhandedness.

First, to get what you want from someone, establish familiarity. “Kelli,” it begins, “It has been so nice getting to know you this year.”  Don’t beat around the bush too long. Make your intentions aggressively clear. “You are extremely sweet and foxy,” Obama writes to that end. Next, subtly undermine your foe by pointing out that he isn’t quite as devoted as one might desire, or as, say, Obama might be. “I don’t know why Greg would want to spend any time with me at all!” He is also, it goes without saying, selling out his own side here. Greg might be his pal, but allegiances, like political parties, are just starting points.

Next, flatter the target again by hinting at her superiority. “You really deserve better than clowns like us; you even laugh at my jokes!” As Marilyn Monroe once said, if you can make a woman laugh, you can make her do anything. That pointed pivot in the second clause made that a high-yield sentence.

What young Barack also knows is that while you ultimately have to put the ball in your target’s court, it helps if you also hand over a ready gameplan. “I hope we can keep in touch this summer even though Greg will be gone,” he writes with just a tantalizing hint of sin. “Call me, and I’ll buy you lunch sometimes.” Note the plural. He is asking for something ongoing. A phone number is scrawled. “Anyway, good luck in everything you do and stay happy.” How to stay happy? Well, he’s just given her a darn good idea.

The note is signed with a heart and love. Perhaps John Boehner might not respond to “foxy,” but surely the speechwriting team can come up with some alternatives. 

Noreen Malone (@noreenmalone) is a staff writer at The New Republic.