Forget all the focus on the one ugly word President Obama used. Pay attention, instead, to the rest of the words in his podcast interview. They offer a remarkable self-portrait of a president in the second half of his second term, both chastened and liberated.
I must confess a preference for presidential sit-downs with newspapers and Sunday shows, not grungy garages cluttered with “Gimme Shelter” posters and old guitars. I am more inclined to “Face the Nation” than “WTF.”
But there is value to sneaking a glimpse behind the heavy presidential curtain, which is where comedian Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast succeeded best. Politicians talk so much in public that it is rare to pierce the rhetorical autopilot and expose the human being underneath.
So when Maron made the odd-sounding, possibly “insulting” observation that the presidency was something of a middle-management position, Obama surprisingly ended up agreeing:
“When I ran in 2008 there were those posters out there: ‘Hope’ and ‘Change.’ And those are capturing aspirations about where we should be going. … As soon as you start talking about specifics, then the world’s complicated, and there’s choices that you have to make. And it turns out that the trajectory of progress always happens in fits and starts. And you’ve got these big legacy systems that you have to wrestle with and you have to balance what you want and where you’re going with what is and what has been. …
“Yes, it’s like middle management. Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work. Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements and to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south.”
Obama no doubt understood, at least intellectually, the frustrations and limitations of the democratic process before he took the oath of office. He knew the unwieldiness of the battleship. But this sober assessment of the possibility of transformative change reflects a remarkable distance from the swept-away rhetoric of his first campaign.
Seven long years later, Garage Obama is far more subdued, almost deflated.
There remains a certain infuriating grandiosity; see, for example, the overuse of the first-person pronoun: “When I take an unemployment rate of 10 percent down to 5.5 percent, when I drive the uninsured rate to the lowest it’s ever been, when I restore people’s 401(k)s.”
Still, this president speaks in terms of “a lot more hits than misses,” not of launching “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow.” He knows, from painful experience, that the latest mass killing, no matter how appalling, is not going to magically produce gun legislation.
But Garage Obama is also freed up, beyond simply using the N-word.
“I actually think I’m a better president and would be a better candidate if I were running again than I ever have been,” he told Maron. “And it’s sort of like an athlete – you might slow down a little bit, you might not jump as high as you used to, but I know what I’m doing and I’m fearless.
“And also part of that fearlessness is, because you’ve screwed up enough times, that you know that it’s all happened. I’ve been through this. I’ve screwed up. I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls. And I emerged and I lived. And that’s always such a liberating feeling, right?”
There is, indeed, a certain WTF quality to the denouement of Obama’s presidency, unmoored from party and eying the clock. It emerged in the setting of a Pasadena garage as a sniper patrolled the roof to protect the middle manager in chief.