President Obama had a fascinating discussion with author Marilynne Robinson about American culture and American democracy. He also talked about the time before Fox News started “making me scary.”
The discussion was published in The New York Review of Books. In it, President Obama seems wistful for the days when he could go out on the campaign trail and talk to people, without having it all planned out and scripted.
But one of the things that I don’t get a chance to do as often as I’d like is just to have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I’m interested in; to hear from them and have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in.
And so we had this idea that why don’t I just have a conversation with somebody I really like and see how it turns out. And you were first in the queue, because… I love your books.
There’s a real poignancy here, I think, in President Obama’s longing to work past the ugliness that has overtaken so much of our political discourse, especially around him:
The President: It’s interesting, because we’re talking in Iowa; people always, I think, were surprised about me connecting with folks in small-town Iowa. And the reason I did was, first of all, I had the benefit that at the time nobody expected me to win. And so I wasn’t viewed through this prism of Fox News and conservative media, and making me scary. At the time, I didn’t seem scary, other than just having a funny name. I seemed young. Sometimes I look at my pictures from then and I say, I can’t believe anybody voted for me because I look like I’m twenty-five.
But I’d go into these towns and everybody felt really familiar to me, because they reminded me of my grandparents and my mom and that attitude that you talk about. You saw all through the state—and I saw this when I was traveling through southern Illinois when I was first campaigning for the United States Senate—and I actually see it everywhere across the country.
...And people are treating each other the way you would want our democracy to cultivate. But there’s this huge gap between how folks go about their daily lives and how we talk about our common life and our political life. And people describe it as the distance between Washington and Main Street. But it’s not just Washington; it’s the way we talk about our politics, our foreign policy, our common endeavors. There’s this gap.
And the thing I’ve been struggling with throughout my political career is how do you close the gap. There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics. And some of it has to do with all the filters that stand between ordinary people who are busy and running around trying to look after their kids and do a good job and do all the things that maintain a community, so they don’t have the chance to follow the details of complicated policy debates.
They know they want to take care of somebody who’s sick, and they have a generous impulse. How that gets translated into the latest Medicare budgets [isn’t] always clear. They know they want us to use our power wisely in the world, and that violence often begets violence. But they also know the world is dangerous and it’s very hard to sort out, as you talk about in your essay, fear when violence must be met, and when there are other tools at our disposal to try to create a more peaceful world.
So that, I think, is the challenge. I’m very encouraged when I meet people in their environments. Somehow it gets distilled at the national political level in ways that aren’t always as encouraging.
One of my biggest frustrations with President Obama has been his lack of response to the face of non-stop smears and attacks from the likes of Fox News. It's somewhat heartening to see he's at least thinking about counteracting this poison. Let's hope he starts to address it head on.
The discussion, which is the first of two parts, is probably the frankest and most personal glimpse of President Obama’s thoughts about what it’s like to be president that I’ve yet seen.
The other thing that struck me? Just how American President Obama sounds.
Barack Obama caricature by DonkeyHotey.
What scares me are those people who actually believe they are being delivered factual information in a legitimate news format while seeking a seemingly obsessive need for validation of their pathetic ignorance, which Fox is cashing in on!
Exploitation at it’s finest!
Even CNN lets Fox slide all the time. Reliable Sources is milktoast, and look where Howie wound up. The media itself should be more aggressive towards Fox b.s. It is a walking campaign violation, among other things.