Meacham: A Conversation With Obama

He did it because he could. Last Wednesday, in the gathering cool of late afternoon, Marine One brought President Barack Obama to the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base. As he climbed down the steps of the helicopter, returning the salute of the Marine guard, he was slated to stride straight on to Air Force One, for a flight west to the heat of Arizona. Looking to his right, however, he saw a small crowd of schoolchildren and military personnel gathered with cameras and homemade signs. Abruptly but gracefully, the president broke toward the spectators; gathered journalists and security scurried to follow his lead. He shook every outstretched hand and, reaching the end of the line, deftly avoided eye contact with the gaggle of reporters. As he turned to make the walk back to Air Force One, a breeze blew—and everyone scurried anew, to keep up with him.

It was that kind of day—and it has been that kind of presidency: Barack Obama, moving as he wishes to move, and the world bending itself to him. Four hours later, sitting comfortably in his airborne office, coatless with a crimson tie, his laptop open, his blue Air Force One flight jacket hanging on the back of his swivel chair, the president was, as ever, in control. (He acknowledged that he saw the new Star Trek recently because "everybody was saying I was Spock.") After a series of questions about what he has learned in his first months in the White House, I asked him whether he would read over a paragraph from his book, The Audacity of Hope, and react to it.

His eyes falling on the marked passage, he says, "Yes, I remember this." He pauses, and reads a section about the importance of living a good life: "That's what satisfies me now, I think—being useful to my family and the people who elected me, leaving behind a legacy that will make our children's lives more hopeful than our own. Sometimes, working in Washington, I feel I am meeting that goal. At other times, it seems as if the goal recedes from me, and all the activity I engage in—the hearings and speeches and press conferences and position papers—are an exercise in vanity, useful to no one."

Is he susceptible to such pessimism now, in the White House? Is there ever a sense of futility? Closing the book and handing it back across the desk, he says: "I confess that I haven't had time to feel that way on the job. One of the extraordinary privileges of not only being president but being president at a time of great difficulty is that your plate is full and the decisions we're making and the policies we're pursuing I absolutely know will make a difference." In other words, the frustrations of life as a senator, much less those of a community organizer, have given way to a palpable feeling of authority and effectiveness. What he says, what he does, what he decides: it matters, all of it, and he loves that.

What he has learned is that he likes, and enjoys, power—the capacity to shape reality in his image and by his lights—and that he finds crisis defining, bracing and useful. That a president feels suited to power is hardly a startling observation, but that Obama so revels in it—in the understated way Obama revels in anything—confounds the competing popular impressions of his persona. Many of his followers see him as the embodiment of a kind of utopian progressive politics in which the brute application of power is passé, a relic of the ruins of the Age of Bush and Cheney. Many of his critics, meanwhile, think him weak, a crypto-socialist one-worlder who wants to offer rogue nations tea and sympathy.

The experience of his first months in office suggests that both camps need to recalibrate in light of new facts on the ground. In Obama's universe, strength and subtlety are not mutually exclusive. He may make the wrong call—things could go disastrously awry, at home or abroad, on his watch—but one of the most interesting and underappreciated things to emerge from these early days is how comfortable Obama is in making the call. He savors exercising the power of the presidency. Woodrow Wilson described the office as "the vital place of action in the system." From the financial sector to the automobile industry to terrorism, Obama has personally taken on those institutional characteristics. He is the action.

He has the vices of his virtues. His fluency with policy can make him seem abrupt when he feels a meeting is covering ground he already knows. His confidence and self-reliance—honed in a fatherless childhood—sometimes creates the impression of iciness, even to those devoted to his success. His pragmatism and willingness to change his mind when confronted with new information occasionally drives the liberal element of his coalition to distraction.

To talk to Obama for the record is to watch—and to be part of, given the nature of the exchange—a performance of psychological and intellectual skill. Most politicians instinctively try to disarm you by establishing a personal connection of some kind, usually with a remark about your recent work or a recollection of the last time you met (both the remark and the recollection having been provided moments before by staff). No matter how aware one is of the artifice of the gesture, though, the natural human impulse is to be flattered on some level—I knew he'd remember, or Well, he may be faking it with everybody else, but I bet he really did like that piece.

Obama, at least in my experience, is different. There may be some small talk, but very little; and there is none of the conventional journalistic flirtation-by-compliment. This is business, time is valuable, so let's get on with it. When he answers questions, his gaze is most intense at two very different kinds of moments: when he is repeating, for the bazillionth time, an answer about which he has thought deeply, and when there is spontaneous passion on a point sharpened by conversation.

On Air Force One, his eyes flashed when I asked about his willingness to use American military force, first in Pakistan and then in Iran. "I don't take options off the table when it comes to U.S. security, period," he said. A moment later, he added: "And I assure you I'm not naive," his voice rising ever so slightly, his head tilting back ever so subtly to a commanding angle.

I'm not naive. No, he surely is not—if he were, we would not be having this conversation in the president's cabin but in his Senate office, perhaps, or on a commercial flight between Washington and O'Hare. A series of counterintuitive bets won him this plane, the chief one being that Americans were open to complexity after eight years of a Manichaean ethos. "The American people, I think, not only have a toleration but also a hunger for explanation and complexity, and a willingness to acknowledge hard problems," Obama said. "I think one of the biggest mistakes that is made in Washington is this notion you have to dumb down things for the public."

He says he refuses to watch cable news (he sticks to sports on TV), and he appears resolved to keep playing the role—Spock with global sex appeal—that has gotten him this far. As he talked about the weight of the decisions that are his to make, he was realistic: "Now, they may—their final results may disappoint, and I think that there will be times where I look back on a decision or a policy and say to myself, 'I should have gone this way instead of that way,' but I never feel like I'm spinning my wheels—at least not yet."