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Stephen L Carter: Obama’s White House can’t take a joke

There’s a poignant moment midway through Ron Chernow’s superb biography of George Washington when the father of the United States, struggling to make his Mount Vernon plantation profitable after the war, writes fretfully to a friend that he knows no more “than the man in the moon where I am going to get money to pay my taxes”. Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning volume spends a lot of time on Washington’s life at Mount Vernon between generalship and presidency, and the image of constant financial struggle helps to humanise a man who has been the subject of so much hagiography.

This bit of history comes to mind after the White House’s silly decision to edit out of the transcript of President Barack Obama’s recent remarks in Chicago a reference to “unpaid bills”. According to news articles, Obama gave the crowd this report on his visit to his pre-White House home: “Because Michelle and I and the kids, we left so quickly that there’s still junk on my desk, including some unpaid bills. I think eventually they got paid – but they’re sort of stacked up. And messages, newspapers and all kinds of stuff.”

The official transcript, issued by the White House press office, read this way: “We left so quickly that there’s still junk on my desk, including some – newspapers and all kinds of stuff.” A later “corrected” transcript described the remark about unpaid bills – heard clearly by more than one reporter present – as inaudible.

To which one wants to say: seriously?

The president was obviously telling a joke, and the joke works pretty well. The administration has struggled to find a way to demonstrate Obama’s sympathy with the struggles of the middle class, and the joke does at least a little to soften the president’s edges at a time when many Americans report significant financial stress.

So why the deletion? The claim that the tape is inaudible barely passes the giggle test. My suspicion – impossible to prove – is that the decision was made by a panicky White House political team so worried about nasty ads from their opponents that they wound up brushing away the very warmth they desperately wanted their boss to convey. The spectre of television spots linking Obama’s unpaid bills to, say, the national debt is too much for them to bear. But an advertising campaign of that sort would look almost as amateurish as the editing of the transcript.

It was just a joke, guys.

Obama’s team has spent years trying to develop the image of a president both cerebral and cool – a man who takes his time, thinks things through, and refuses to panic or be rushed into bad decisions. They’ve given us an Obama who would rather be right than popular. (And this is independent of whether, on any particular set of issues, you think he’s right.)

On this point, the president’s staff might usefully go back and look at Chernow’s book on Washington. Washington, too, carefully cultivated an image – in his case, the reluctant patrician, called to the bar of politics against his inclination, willing to serve his country only because his country demanded it of him.

Washington, like Obama, liked to take his time over decisions. He hated the give-and-take of everyday political life, the horse-trading so crucial, even in a much younger US, to the success of any legislative programme. He believed in a strong central government, in part “to override the selfish ambitions of local politicians”.

Which is where the lesson comes in.

Precisely because Washington was a man accustomed to keeping a certain distance, he allowed himself to be persuaded by Alexander Hamilton to hold regular “levees,” at which ordinary citizens, neither vetted nor prepped, could come chat with their president. The president avoided most social intercourse outside of his official duties, but held regular dinners with small groups of legislators, in the hope of making them, in Hamilton’s words, “his constitutional counselors”.

On issues of foreign policy, Washington was decisive, confident that the nation would follow his lead. Domestically, he was more cautious. In keeping with his patrician persona, Washington avoided the rough-and-tumble of politics. Even when the new nation did fierce internal battle over the strikingly different economic plans offered by Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the president mostly maintained a prudent public silence.

Washington seemed unbothered by criticism. He chose not to do rhetorical battle with his opponents, and often gave ground for the sake of political peace – as when he replaced Gouverneur Morris with James Monroe as ambassador to France. He would not risk letting the fragile new nation be torn asunder by political squabbling.

That isn’t, of course, the model of the modern presidency, and hasn’t been for some decades. But as Obama and his staff consider how to spend the final two years and three months of his term, they could do worse than present a different way of thinking about the office he holds, even in our hyperpartisan times – a model for the future, by way of the past.

As for that messy desk in Chicago, he can get to it later.

The writer is a Bloomberg Views columnist


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