There is a telling little exchange in a newly released excerpt of President Obama’s exit interview with “60 Minutes.” In it, Steve Kroft tells Obama flat-out, “You didn’t change Washington.” To which Obama responds:
I changed those things that were in my direct control. I mean, look, I’m proud of the fact that, with two weeks to go, we’re part of the first administration in modern history that hasn’t had a major scandal in the White House. In that sense, we changed some things.
“I changed those things that were in my direct control” and “we changed some things” are pretty muted defenses of Obama’s inability change our politics in the way he aspired to.
Obama is, after all, the one who put himself on the map by pushing for an end to political polarization and excessive labeling during his hugely eloquent 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. This is the president, after all, who was elected on slogans of “Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can.”
Today, he’s basically saying, “Yes We Can (Change Some Things Which Are In Our Direct Control).”
Obama, to his credit, is acknowledging the political reality he confronted in his eight years and isn’t trying to cast it as all sunshine and lollipops. And all things considered, he’s exiting on a high note, with the approval of a majority of Americans. That’s no small feat in this day and age — and especially considering the two people running to replace him were significantly less popular.
But postmortems of Obama’s tenure can’t help but return to the unrealized rhetoric of Candidate Obama and the failure of a man who was supposed to be a transformation political figure to actually transform our political dialogue in really any appreciable way. I think even Obama would admit that things have gotten worse on that last count — more polarized, more segmented and more siloed.
He basically did so in his farewell speech on Tuesday.
“For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions,” he said during the speech in Chicago, adding: “And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”
Obama, of course, isn’t taking all of the blame for this. In the same “60 Minutes” interview, he cites Republicans who opposed things, in his words, “just because I’m supporting it.”
But he also acknowledged his own sales job failed for “big stretches” of time.
“And we were very effective — and I was very effective — in shaping public opinion around my campaigns,” Obama said. “But there were big stretches, while governing, where even though we were doing the right thing, we weren’t able to mobilize public opinion firmly enough behind us to weaken the resolve of the Republicans to stop opposing us or to cooperate with us. And there were times during my presidency where I lost the PR battle.”
Indeed, if you campaign in poetry and govern in prose — as Mario Cuomo famously said — the poetry often proved far easier for Obama. And oftentimes it was much too lofty for him to actually give himself a chance to live up to it.