Times Obama Mash-Up

Early magazine piece plays on old themes

The New York Times today continued the rather odd practice of dumping its big weekend magazine story online on a Wednesday. And naturally, this week’s, which sees press corps doyen Peter Baker delivering a definitive two-year-in situation report on the presidency, has captured Beltway eyeballs.

Baker sat down with the president for an hour in the Oval Office for the piece, “Education of A President.” It’s expertly researched, well sourced—Baker spoke with nearly two dozen of the president’s advisors (some “with permission, others without”)—and laced with enough tidbits for bloggers to feature some juicy excerpts—some in the White House think Huckabee’s the most likely GOP opponent come 2012, for exmaple. And, yes, there’s enough White House folk complaining about what they inherited to anger the right, and just enough talk of liberal pessimism to irritate the left. Gentleman, start your WordPresses.

But my problem with the Baker piece is that it reads sometimes like a mash-up of so many big Obama think pieces we’ve seen the last six months. It tells the same stories, repeats the same theories, and offers the speculations—only in a non-ideological he said/she said form. Both sides of the “Obama’s failure to communicate” meme are represented; both sides of the “Republicans are too partisan” argument show up as well. The main difference between this and an Allen/VandeHei blockbuster is that the people articulating ideas here are higher-ups. (There some nice descriptions of the Oval Office.)

For but one example:

Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the upper chamber and Obama’s ally from Illinois, said the Republicans were to blame for the absence of bipartisanship. “I think his fate was sealed,” Durbin said. “Once the Republicans decided they would close ranks to defeat him, that just made it extremely difficult and dragged it out for a longer period of time. The American people have a limited attention span. Once you convince them there’s a problem, they want a solution.”

Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, though, is among the Democrats who grade Obama harshly for not being more nimble in the face of opposition. “B-plus, A-minus on substantive accomplishments,” he told me, “and a D-plus or C-minus on communication.”

Sound familiar?

Perhaps I’m betraying my magazine roots, but it’s the color in Baker’s piece that grabbed me most—Robert Gates noting that Obama’s going gray, for example, and this scene from the air:

On long Air Force One flights, he [Obama] retreats to the conference room and plays spades for hours, maintaining a trash-talking contest all the while, with the same three aides: Reggie Love, his personal assistant; Marvin Nicholson, his trip director; and Pete Souza, his White House photographer. (When I asked if he had an iPad, Obama said, “I have an iReggie, who has my books, my newspapers, my music all in one place.”)

(Side note: What is our obsession with this president’s iPod?)

Such moments are few and far between. Mostly, it’s nothing terribly new, just both sides of the old. At 8,284 words, it’s a bit of a slog. You can probably wait until Sunday.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.