How He Ticks
Five of the most revealing moments of the Obama presidency.
President Obama talks a lot. And he talks everywhere— The Tonight Show, The View, the United Nations. At this rate, if re-elected, he'll be appearing at Shoney's for the Sapersons' anniversary in December 2016. But what moments really stick out? This week, there was one: At his news conference Tuesday, Obama talked about compromise. He was urgent, candid, and wide-ranging.
The response was notable because it seemed a few steps closer to the core of a president who often seems encased in bulletproof glass. It's almost two years into his presidency and, as pollster Peter Hart puts it, "at this stage of the game, [voters] are not sure who he is going to be. … People still don't have a handle on him." There have not been a lot of these moments. But there have been a few—and for the most part they come in the speeches that don't require a teleprompter. I have picked five that appear to open a little window into an aspect of the president. None tells the full truth. Some may tell only a momentary truth. Nor are they necessarily weightier than the long, straight-forward policy speeches. But each of these moments offers a little window of truth on Obama.
We encourage readers to send in their suggestions for a moment from the Obama presidency that should be included in this list. It can be a single answer at a press conference, or a riff in a speech the president gave, or an answer he gave in a print interview. The one requirement for inclusion here is that the passage be as far as possible from the vacuum-packed and committee-considered speech that we normally get. (Then we can debate whether it represents an authentic moment or a planned authentic moment.) Offer submissions in the comments section or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1) News conference, Dec. 7, 2010: "If that's the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then, let's face it, we will never get anything done." Obama is often his loosest in his last answer at a news conference. In this one, Obama gave the most detailed articulation to date of his governing philosophy. He made the case for the sort of compromise, diversity, and working for imperfect progress that have been the hallmark of the American experience.
2) Speech to House Democrats, March 20, 2010: "Sometimes I think about how I got involved in politics." House Democrats currently swearing at the president for his deal with Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts might want to watch this speech again. The president spoke about how doing something to help other people could redeem all the indignities and sacrifice required in politics.
3) Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dec. 10, 2009: White House officials would probably pick the president's Cairo speech as his greatest foreign set-piece speech. What made the Nobel speech seem more notable were the awkward conditions—even the president knew he didn't deserve the award, and yet with the speech Obama achieved something that people also expect of his presidency: He made something out of arriving too early. If Obama was given the award because of someone else's agenda, he used the speech to make it about his doctrine, explaining how in his view peace required the occasional use of war.
4) On American exceptionalism, April 4, 2009: In Strasbourg, France, the president was asked for his view of American exceptionalism. His conservative critics have seized on the answer to suggest he does not believe America has played a special role in world affairs. They often quote the first sentence of his answer: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." In the complete answer of nearly 300 words, however, it's clear that Obama is saying something more complex."We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional," he says. What makes this moment notable is not that the president nails it but that, in real time, without a carefully crafted set of talking points to guide him, he is trying to find the balance between singing the song of America and demonstrating before a foreign audience that he understands that America is not the only country in the world.
5) News conference, March 24, 2009: Asked by CNN's Ed Henry why he waited to express outrage at the bonuses given to executives at AIG, which was the recipient of a federal bailout, the president snapped back, "I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak." The question riled the president, because it exposed his aversion to the nakedly theatrical aspects of politics. Not only does he have great distaste for those aspects of the presidency that are purely show, but he is greatly irritated with the 24-hour news cycle, which requires him to engage in performance art of "showing outrage" on a regular basis.