The New Republic isn’t the only left-of-center publication that has been left unimpressed by a recent New Yorker profile of President Obama. Now John Dickerson writes a piece in Slate that labels the president an “inaction hero.”
It seems that every State of the Union address must now come with a slogan. In 2011, it was “Win the Future.” In 2012, the slogan was “Built to Last.” For 2013, it was “Let’s Get It Done,” and this year the president will treat us to a “Year of Action.” He and his staff have been test-driving the phrase for months. The president used it again in his Saturday radio address. Though Congress may block him, the president says he’s determined to use every tool at his disposal to get something done. “Where Congress isn’t acting, I’ll act on my own to put opportunity within reach for anyone who’s willing to work for it,” the president said on Saturday.
Sounds exciting, plus the slogan “A Year of Grinding Torpor” or “More of the Same” don’t really fit the spirit of the enterprise. But on the eve of the annual speech, a New Yorker profile of the president doesn’t paint the picture of a man of action—at least not the way that word is being used in the White House’s slogan. Instead of coming across as a man engaging his considerable faculties in an energetic effort to overcome the limits of his office, the president seems content with tending the store, confident that the verdict of history will smile on him. He’s not worried about being measured against the vestiges of an old notion of the presidency. This may be a realistic view of things, but it doesn’t really match the call for action. …
… The Obama of the New Yorker profile wears the limitations of his office like a shawl. “At the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story,” the president says. “We just try to get our paragraph right.” At another time he describes himself as “a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history.” To the crowd at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser that applauds a heckler’s insistence he use more executive orders, Remnick reports him responding: “Before everybody starts clapping, that’s not how it works. We’ve got this Constitution, we’ve got this whole thing about separation of powers. So there is no shortcut to politics, and there’s no shortcut to democracy.” His parting words to Remnick are about limits. “The President of the United States cannot remake our society, and that’s probably a good thing. Not ‘probably.’ It’s definitely a good thing.”
The president talks about income inequality and fighting for the middle class as the driving motives for his presidency’s final years, but there’s a lack of ardor. It’s the difference between reading a story about someone saying they’re going to run a marathon and reading one where they are running hills each morning at 5 a.m. In this narrative, the president is mostly described working his will on high-dollar Democratic donors whose money he’ll need for the bruising midterm elections—which will add another set of constraints to action.