Why Can't a Modern President Say, ‘The Only Thing We Have to Fear ... ’?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
In 1933 the newly inaugurated FDR said, Fear is the enemy. Today’s politicians have a harder time getting that message across. (Wikipedia)

A week ago at this time I was still typing up notes from a two-hour “off-the-record” interview that President Obama held at the White House with several magazine and newspaper writers, including three from The Atlantic: Peter Beinart, Jeffrey Goldberg, and me. I put “off the record” in quotes because things a president says in front of more than two people rarely stay secret very long. Also, part of the White House’s hope was obviously to expose this group to the president’s rationale. And I say “still typing up notes” because attendees were not allowed to bring recording devices other than notepads to the session. (For why it is worth going, despite off-the-record ground rules, see explanation* after the jump.)

Indeed not long after the session, the New York Times ran two articles (one, two) by a reporter not at the session about what Obama said there, and my friend David Ignatius of the WaPo, who was there, did two columns (one, two) reflecting what Obama must be thinking, although not directly attributing anything to him.

In public and in private, Obama likes to say, “I’m a pretty consistent guy.” And he is. In my limited experience, the gap between the cases he makes on- and off-the record is not very large. (Why, then, bother to go off-the-record? For most public figures, it’s for protection against a single phrase or sentence being taken out of context — although ironically, as explained below, exactly that happened to Obama in this case.)

Through his year-end press conferences, speeches, and on-the-record interviews Obama has been doing two things over and over:  (1) stressing the long view, which I’ve been calling the “chessmaster” perspective, on just about any issue, from domestic politics to the range of problems the nation deals with overseas, and (2) wrestling with the balance between seeming adequately aware of the fear generated by terror attacks in Paris or San Bernardino, and not doing the terrorists’ work by hyping that fear.Most of what is on my scrawled-out notepad from last week’s session is consistent with what everyone has heard him say on those two recurring themes.

Today’s update: readers on whether Obama is being strategically accurate, or instead self-deluding, in presenting his chessmaster-style “long view” perspective. Let’s start with an area where he seems most visibly to have failed: the rout of his fellow Democrats from Senate and House seats, plus governorships and state legislatures, during his time in the White House. The first message comes from a poli-sci academic whose dissertation is on exactly this topic:

[That Obama’s party is in a weaker position now than in 2008] is a truism that I think runs the risk of being somewhat myopic. The Democratic Party is pretty clearly in a more vulnerable place now than it was eight years ago, though I'm not convinced this should be characterized as weaker.

For decades now Dems have been awaiting their "emerging majority," based on a tipping point in the nation's demographics. Obama's personalistic appeal and organizational sophistication helped speed this process along-at least as a presidential coalition on his behalf. The downside is that it made the Democrats more dependent on a coalition of irregular voters, and likely caused a counter-reaction of further consolidation of older, whiter, yet more consistent voters within the GOP.

As a result, Democrats have been boxed into a broader if more shallow coalition. A lot of veteran pols and operatives (that the media depend on for their narrative on this stuff as there is not tremendous interest in the nuts and bolts of party building by journalists) have expressed frustration over this…. That being said however, few would disagree that the long-term fate of the party rests with Obama's coalition.

I suppose a case could be made that a slower transition that did not make the party brand quite as toxic toward certain high turnout segments  of the population would have bolstered Democratic short term electoral fortunes- especially in off year elections. But it should be remembered that since the 60's, the Party's struggles to maintain its non-white and more liberal factions, along with the white working class, has put it in a consistently tenuous position.

I think there is something to be said for ripping the scab off now, once this coalition could be established on a presidential level, and engaging in the difficult (and likely at times electorally painful) process of consolidating this coalition. This seems especially true given the scope of problems the country faces, and the intransigence of the opposition, likely means that  it will  take large Democratic majorities to pass meaningful legislation on issues like economic inequality, climate change, etc.

Another reader with a different explanation of the party’s weakness:

Someone well to my left told me years ago that he thought Barack Obama was several moves ahead of everybody else on the chessboard. I do tend to agree….

The criticism is fair that the Democratic party is worse off politically than it was when he took office, but is that his fault or the result of too many Democrats who are cowardly and feckless? I'll cite Senators Mark Udall and Mary Landrieu--oh, that's right, they were defeated in 2014 after running away from Obama and begging him not to issue an executive order on immigration. How about the Democrats who ran away from health care reform in 2010?

Perhaps it was best expressed by that great philosopher, Stanley Laurel, who said, "You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead."

And another reader arguing that the weakness is illusory:

It has fascinated me that most of the country has moved very far left since early 2012. It's been hard to quantify. Maybe I was too young to truly remember what life was like before Obama (I am 25) but I feel like some major changes have happened since the 2012 election cycle.

Occupy Wall Street did not have any clear and immediate victories except perhaps how the 2016 election will discuss income inequality in a way no one would have imagined in 2008. The vocabulary of feminism is completely mainstream. The only real arguments remaining against the ACA are that maybe we need to consider single payer.

Cell phone video has brought the Rodney King anger mainstream. Marriage equality happened almost over night as Americans slowly realized their friends, neighbors and familes were gay.Over-incarceration and drug legalization are now things politicians can speak about. Less politically, Americans now define their eating habits more at Whole Foods, Chipotle and other more "conscious" establishments.

While a good 30% of the country is stubborn and angry, Obama's re-election leads and reflects that a good portion of the rest of the country is actually ready to live up to the ideals our country was founded on.

These points are obviously related to the arguments that David Frum lays out about the Republicans and Peter Beinart about the Democrats in our new issue. (Subscribe! It’s the perfect gift.)


In the Christmas Eve spirit of boundless giving, here is one more assessment from a reader. This one bears on the climate of fear / loss / resentment that has played such a part in Trump’s rise, and that Obama has struggled to deal with on both the substantive and the “messaging” levels:

I've been thinking about this a lot. Trump/GOP America is not afraid. I think we do ourselves a disservice to credit them with actual fear. And it causes us to misunderstand the challenge we face.

GOP America is afraid of Muslims in the way the Klan and mobs of 20s feared blacks and drinkers and Catholics. Islamic terrorism gives people permission to assert dominance over one of the smallest, weakest groups of in our country -- and fancy themselves bravely standing up for good by shitting on people.

It's a win all the way around. It feels good. Lynchers thought themselves carrying out a noble, hard duty. And they took joy in it. The sentiments on display at the debate are precisely the same. GOP voters eat it up because it feels good. They're not looking for reassurance. They're demanding indulgence.

This follows up on the social permission that electing Barack Obama gave many Americans to indulge racist instincts and bile they long hid. Can't be racist, I live in Barack Obama's America. Inoculation and permission.

I saw this quote in a story about what Americans fear:

"I am very careful taking my small children into large crowds or celebrations - particularly those celebrations of our faith," said one mother."

This is obviously horseshit. And even if it's not, it might as well be. The line between honest delusion and indulgent drama barely exists.

The point of this is that we won't convince people not to act on the permission that their bullshit "fear" gives them. We have to revoke the permission to enjoy how this makes them feel. And that takes confrontation, not reassurance. We just have to beat them.

That's our challenge.  


* Rules-of-journalism dept: Why, and when, is it worth accepting “off the record” strictures?

Sometimes that makes no sense, and a reporter will say to a source: talk with me on the record, or not at all. In other circumstances, there are things you learn this way that you couldn’t if participants thought that anything they said might be isolated for publication. When it comes to an incumbent president, unless you’re pursuing an active Watergate-style investigation and need on-the-record answers about specific allegations, the chance to hear someone explain and defend his views in fairly open conversation is presumptively worth taking.

As mentioned earlier, the main thing the White House would hope to gain in specifying “off the record,” that a single phrase or sentence wouldn’t be captured out of context, nonetheless happened this time. Someone relayed the news that the president said he “didn’t watch” or “didn’t watch enough” cable TV news to internalize the widespread panic after the San Bernardino shootings. This became another standalone controversy. In context it was part of Obama’s discussion of the difficulty of weighing risks rationally, but that full in-context version remains off the record. The leaked one-sentence version went public and became another “gaffe.”


Christmas Eve greetings to all so inclined, and appropriate holiday wishes in general.