Obama Biographers: The President Thinks Like a Writer

That's not always a good thing.


David Maraniss, one of Obama's biographers. (Reuters)

The problem with President Obama, his biographers say, is that he's also a writer: a man who likes to think about the big picture and the long term. He's a thinker who happens to also be the most powerful actor on the world stage.

"He's such a writerly guy," said Ron Suskind, author of Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President. And not just because the president has already written two autobiographies. In Obama's head, he's both the all-knowing narrator and the main character, Suskind said.

Obama's "trying to always think ahead, not get caught up in the 24/7 news cycle," said Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One. The problem with thinking ahead, Suskind said, is that "when the president acts, all those variables change."

Staying detached and thinking long-term may have helped Obama get major legislation through Congress, like the stimulus package and the 2010 health care reform law, his biographers said at a panel at The Atlantic's Washington Ideas Forum. But a president who focuses on the long-term can pass up on tangible moves that could create better circumstances for citizens right away.

 Washington Ideas Forum Conversations with leading newsmakers. A special report

Obama is essentially a centrist and a pragmatist, his biographers agreed. They also agreed that Obama is getting better at being president. Suskind pointed to the fight over the payroll tax cut extension as an example of Obama's ability to use the bully pulpit and box in his opponents.

With his re-election, Obama has the chance to secure the future of his health-care reform law and prove to the public that it's going to improve their lives. Immigration reform, climate change, and education are policy areas where Obama could create a second legacy, his biographers said.

"I think the drive now is greatness. And I think he has the opportunity for it," said David Maraniss, author of Barack Obama: The Story.

First of all, however, Obama has to get through a difficult end-of-year battle over averting tax increases and spending cuts. Mount Rushmore may seem a little closer than it did, say, six weeks ago. But the sculptors aren't sharpening their chisels yet.

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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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