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We’re Still Puzzled

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Christopher Morris/VII
President Obama at the White House, January 2012

You know the joke. A psychiatrist shows a patient a series of inkblots. Each time, the patient sees an erotic episode. “You seem to be preoccupied with sex,” the psychiatrist concludes. The patient protests: “You’re the one with all those dirty pictures.” Ask people to read the inkblots of American political life and that result, too, is likely to tell you more about them than it does about what is really going on.

Jamie Barden, a psychologist at Howard University, ran an experiment that demonstrated this very nicely. Take a bunch of students, Republicans and Democrats, and tell them a story like this: a political fund-raiser named Mike has a serious car accident after a drunken fund-raising event. A month later he makes an impassioned appeal against drunk driving on the radio. Now ask them this question: Hypocrite or changed man?

It turned out that people (Democrats and Republicans both) were two and a half times as likely to think Mike was a hypocrite if they were told he belonged to the other party.1 This experiment only confirms a wide body of work in social psychology demonstrating that we’re biased against people we take to be members of a group that isn’t our own, more biased if we think of them as the opposition. That’s not something most of us needed a psychologist to tell us, of course. The news is not that we are biased, it’s how deeply biased we are.

This disposition is evident enough in the coverage of the current president. Edward Klein’s The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House is almost comically committed to seeing its subject in the worst possible light. This summer Klein told Steven Levingston in The Washington Post, “From the conservative point of view I’m a liberal, and from the liberal point of view I’m a conservative,” but his recent publications have included a book-length attack on Hillary Clinton and a self-published novel, The Obama Identity, written with the former Republican congressman John LeBoutillier, that depicts Barack Obama as a foreign-born former Muslim. (There is a plotline about the president’s foreskin, removed, of course, by a mutahhir, a professional Muslim circumciser, in Indonesia.) The Amateur concludes with a litany of dire facts that Republicans should publicize in order to defeat Obama. Those conservatives who think Klein a liberal are probably not paying attention.

Certainly, the rapturous reception of The Amateur among conservatives in the blogosphere must have something to do with the fact that it confirms the existing convictions of many on the American right. In Klein’s book, Reverend Jeremiah Wright recalls Barack Obama saying, “Help me understand Christianity, because I already know Islam.” One of the president’s “oldest Chicago acquaintances” asserts, “He is afflicted with megalomania.” Dr. David Scheiner, who was once Obama’s doctor, concludes, “He’s academic, lacks passion and feeling, and doesn’t have the sense of humanity that I expected.” The book presents exactly the picture of the cold and condescending crypto-Muslim so many Republicans already believe in.

Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal, by contrast, advances the view that Obama’s stimulus bill, far from being a failure (a verdict shared by both Republicans and the left of the Democratic Party), provided both a Keynesian escape from a terrible economic depression and the “new foundation for growth” promised in the president’s inaugural address. So Democrats ought to like his book.

But is it mere bias that will make them think that, unlike Klein’s opus, it is full of detailed, careful argument, based on detailed, careful reporting and an impressive grasp of public documents? Surely not. It is possible to distinguish between partisan hackwork (even the kind that pleasingly confirms one’s own prejudices) and a work of serious reporting and analysis. If one is looking for the left-leaning counterpart to Klein’s demonology—and there are such works—one would have to look elsewhere.

Still, once we admit that the way we interpret evidence about politics and policy is shaped by our inevitable biases, it is probably a useful exercise to try to push against those biases. We might try to identify uncomfortable truths in work by those we disagree with. We might search out error in books by those we suppose to be on our “side.”

Klein begins his book with a one-sentence paragraph: “This is a reporter’s book.” Many reporters would beg to differ. This is, after all, the same Edward Klein whose 2005 book on Hillary Clinton—The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She’ll Go to Become President—was denounced even by some conservative commentators for its sordidness. (Among other things, it suggested that Chelsea Clinton was conceived by rape.) Often his claims were about things his informants, many of whom were anonymous, were almost certainly in no position to affirm.

Despite having spent a decade as the editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine, he can seem resistant to factual correction. Two years ago, he wrote that when Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House in March 2010, Obama snubbed him by leaving him to dine with his wife and daughters. As various people noted, the story had to be false, since the president’s wife and daughters were in New York City that evening. In his current book, undaunted by fact, Klein reproduces the anecdote.

Klein begins his long prologue with an extended anecdote that explains the source of the book’s title. It describes, in minute detail, a conversation between President Clinton and his wife, in the presence of a small group of friends in August 2011. As the first sentence has it, “Bill and Hillary were going at it again, fighting tooth and nail over their favorite subject: themselves.” The unnamed friends—Klein insists he has two sources for every fact he publishes—hear the ex-president urging his wife to run against the sitting president of her own party, on the basis of “secret” polls affirming her popularity; she would be able to “fix the economy.” Despite support from Chelsea Clinton, who according to Klein “wanted to wreak revenge against Obama’s campaign operatives who had dissed her mother and tried to paint her father as a racist,” the secretary of state was having none of it. “I’m the highest- ranking member in Obama’s cabinet…. What about loyalty, Bill? What about loyalty?”

“Loyalty is a joke,” Bill said. “Loyalty doesn’t exist in politics.” (Nor, if this story is to be believed, among the Clintons’ “old friends” who reported it.)

I’ve had two successors since I left the White House—Bush and Obama—and I’ve heard more from Bush, asking for my advice, than I’ve heard from Obama…. Obama doesn’t know how to be president. He doesn’t know how the world works. He’s incompetent. He’s…he’s…Barack Obama…is an amateur!

This story is, I suppose, consistent with the image many people already have of Bill Clinton: obsessed with political process as well as with policy, consumed with amour propre, a political operator who will sacrifice practically anything in pursuit of power, and so on. But is it credible?

Put aside the fact that the Clintons have, through their spokesmen, said it is false. Is it really likely that one of the great political strategists of our time would have proposed that the secretary of state should resign to run against an incumbent president of her own party? How would Klein’s informants know that Chelsea Clinton wanted to “wreak revenge”? For that matter, why would Bill Clinton have to rely on “secret” polling to confirm that his wife was popular, given that Gallup publishes data regularly on her ratings?

That the story’s dialogue and scene-setting are as stilted as the conversations in Klein’s novel—which features such characters as Mr. Piddlehonor and Whitney Nutwing—does not add verisimilitude. Nor is the plausibility of the book advanced by the fact that Klein has since floated another story about an attempt to get Hillary Clinton to replace Joe Biden as vice-president this time around.

In the spirit of the exercise I recommended earlier, though, here’s one uncomfortable lesson for Democrats that I drew from The Amateur. A lot of people who had supported Barack Obama feel disenchanted. Some, like Dr. Scheiner, are disappointed in Obama’s failure to create a single-payer national health insurance system (which Klein and Scheiner agree in calling “socialized medicine”). This is not so surprising. But some of his many acquaintances on the left are angry because he hasn’t given them the attention they think they deserve. Dr. Scheiner complains, “Obama invited his barber to his inauguration—his barber! But I wasn’t invited. Believe me, that hurt.”

Similar complaints have been widely circulated by many of the rich and powerful who have supported the president financially and politically in the past. Klein puts it like this:

He never called the people who had brought him to the dance—those who backed his presidential bid with their money, time, and organizational skills. The Kennedys didn’t hear from him. Oprah Winfrey didn’t hear from him. Wealthy Jewish donors in Chicago, who had helped fund his 2008 campaign, didn’t hear from him. The “First-Day People”—African-American leaders in Chicago who had paved the way for his political ascent—never heard from him, either.

Suppose, at least for the purposes of argument, that these claims have some truth to them. Klein is not the only one to suggest as much. He quotes The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson, who says that the president “endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors.” Clearly many people across the spectrum think that he hasn’t done enough coddling. Klein devotes a chapter—called “Snubbing Caroline”—to the disaffection of Caroline Kennedy and her family. It is preceded by a chapter on his difficulties with Oprah Winfrey, “Oprah’s Sacrifice.” If the substance of these chapters is right—and, in view of Klein’s history, that “if” bears some emphasis—much of the information must have come from people close to these two powerful women.

On the other side, among Republicans, those who have met the president also seem to wish that he called them, too, more often. But they add that he isn’t much fun to talk to. Klein cites a much-quoted remark of Senator Pat Roberts, who suggested that the president was “pretty thin-skinned” and should “take a valium before he comes in and talks to Republicans.” Another unnamed “top aide to the Republican House leadership” complains, “Not only is he self-assured, the smartest guy in the room, but in his estimation all he has to do is state something and the scales will fall from your eyes…. If you challenge him, he’s furious. He gives you the death stare.” (Similar complaints are registered in Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics.)

The existence of such gripes can scarcely be doubted. It’s true that Obama’s reputation before he entered the White House was as a careful listener and a deft conciliator.2 But then, in the meetings where he displayed these gifts, he wasn’t the boss. And he had a great deal more time to listen, since he wasn’t facing the daily raft of issues that land on the desk of a modern head of state. Some presidents—Bill Clinton and LBJ prominent among them—seem to have enjoyed the process of negotiation, a process in which you must often ingratiate yourself with your opponents. President Obama seems not to be one of them. There is, however, evidence that he is willing to devote his energy to finding solutions with like-minded people. That is one of the major lessons of Michael Grunwald’s engrossing book The New New Deal.

  1. 1

    Jon Hamilton, Alix Spiegel, and Shankar Vedantam, “Inconsistency: The Real Hobgoblin,” Morning Edition, NPR, March 5, 2012. 

  2. 2

    I did a program for the BBC after President Obama was elected, which led me to talk to many of the scholars who had worked with him. This was a repeated theme of their comments. “Obama: Professor President,” BBC Radio 4, January 6, 2009. 

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