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John Dickerson: Obama accepting the limitations of presidency

  • Slate
  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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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. Though Congress may block him, the president says he’s determined to use every tool at his disposal to get something done.

Sounds exciting, plus a slogan such as “A Year of Grinding Torpor” or “More of the Same” doesn’t really fit the spirit of the enterprise.

But on the eve of the annual speech, a New Yorker profile of the president didn’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.

The president gave New Yorker editor and Obama biographer David Remnick special access over several days late last year to talk about his administration and his plans for the future. It was similar to the wide-ranging set of interviews the president gave Michael Lewis a year ago for a Vanity Fair profile. In the Lewis piece, Obama talked about the limitations of his office but also talked about its potential, as if he were still sifting through the tool chest for some Allen wrench that might yield a fresh result.

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 said. “We just try to get our paragraph right.” He described himself as “a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history.” His parting words to Remnick were 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’s comments reflect the triumph of experience over hope. He long ago tempered his claims about transforming partisan politics – he now seems a little embarrassed about the whole thing. But the tone of the piece also shows how realistic he has become about harnessing the power of his electoral success and the national mood he claimed it represented.

If this more realistic posture seems at odds with the call to a “Year of Action,” that may be only because we are misinterpreting what Obama means by action. He’s not talking about showy gestures, but actions that unfold over a much longer timeline.

Remnick treated this evolution of Obama’s vision as a laudable outgrowth of his special temperament. But it is not Obama’s insight alone. This view about history’s verdict provided solace to George W. Bush as well.

According to Peter Baker’s book “Days of Fire,” Bush and Obama also shared another realization. In the New Yorker interview, Obama seemed to be embracing a view of the presidency’s limitations that Bush offered in the response to an aide who asked him what surprised him the most about his presidency. “How little authority I have,” Bush said.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.

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