Desde que tomou posse como presidente dos Estados Unidos, poucos jornalistas tiveram acesso directo a Barack Obama. O editor da The New Yorker, David Remnick, foi um deles. Acompanhou o presidente norte-americano no Air Force One, entrevistou-o na Casa Branca e ainda teve uma conversa telefónica quando o artigo estava a fechar. O resultado é um longo perfil cujos bastidores podem ser lidos no blogue da revista, aqui.
On and off the road with Barack Obama.
On the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving, Barack Obama sat in the office cabin of Air Force One wearing a look of heavy-lidded annoyance. The Affordable Care Act, his signature domestic achievement and, for all its limitations, the most ambitious social legislation since the Great Society, half a century ago, was in jeopardy. His approval rating was down to forty per cent—lower than George W. Bush’s in December of 2005, when Bush admitted that the decision to invade Iraq had been based on intelligence that “turned out to be wrong.” Also, Obama said thickly, “I’ve got a fat lip.”
That morning, while playing basketball at F.B.I. headquarters, Obama went up for a rebound and came down empty-handed; he got, instead, the sort of humbling reserved for middle-aged men who stubbornly refuse the transition to the elliptical machine and Gentle Healing Yoga. This had happened before. In 2010, after taking a self-described “shellacking” in the midterm elections, Obama caught an elbow in the mouth while playing ball at Fort McNair. He wound up with a dozen stitches. The culprit then was one Reynaldo Decerega, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Decerega wasn’t invited to play again, though Obama sent him a photograph inscribed “For Rey, the only guy that ever hit the President and didn’t get arrested. Barack.”
This time, the injury was slighter and no assailant was named—“I think it was the ball,” Obama said—but the President needed little assistance in divining the metaphor in this latest insult to his person. The pundits were declaring 2013 the worst year of his Presidency. The Republicans had been sniping at Obamacare since its passage, nearly four years earlier, and HealthCare.gov, a Web site that was undertested and overmatched, was a gift to them. There were other beribboned boxes under the tree: Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency; the failure to get anything passed on gun control or immigration reform; the unseemly waffling over whether the Egyptian coup was a coup; the solidifying wisdom in Washington that the President was “disengaged,” allergic to the forensic and seductive arts of political persuasion. The congressional Republicans quashed nearly all legislation as a matter of principle and shut down the government for sixteen days, before relenting out of sheer tactical confusion and embarrassment—and yet it was the President’s miseries that dominated the year-end summations.
Obama worried his lip with his tongue and the tip of his index finger. He sighed, slumping in his chair. The night before, Iran had agreed to freeze its nuclear program for six months. A final pact, if one could be arrived at, would end the prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the hell that could follow: terror attacks, proxy battles, regional war—take your pick. An agreement could even help normalize relations between the United States and Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. Obama put the odds of a final accord at less than even, but, still, how was this not good news?
The answer had arrived with breakfast. The Saudis, the Israelis, and the Republican leadership made their opposition known on the Sunday-morning shows and through diplomatic channels. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, called the agreement a “historic mistake.” Even a putative ally like New York Senator Chuck Schumer could go on “Meet the Press” and, fearing no retribution from the White House, hint that he might help bollix up the deal. Obama hadn’t tuned in. “I don’t watch Sunday-morning shows,” he said. “That’s been a well-established rule.” Instead, he went out to play ball.
Usually, Obama spends Sundays with his family. Now he was headed for a three-day fund-raising trip to Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, rattling the cup in one preposterous mansion after another. The prospect was dispiriting. Obama had already run his last race, and the chances that the Democratic Party will win back the House of Representatives in the 2014 midterm elections are slight. The Democrats could, in fact, lose the Senate.
For an important trip abroad, Air Force One is crowded with advisers, military aides, Secret Service people, support staff, the press pool. This trip was smaller, and I was along for the ride, sitting in a guest cabin with a couple of aides and a staffer who was tasked with keeping watch over a dark suit bag with a tag reading “The President.”
Obama spent his flight time in the private quarters in the nose of the plane, in his office compartment, or in a conference room. At one point on the trip from Andrews Air Force Base to Seattle, I was invited up front for a conversation. Obama was sitting at his desk watching the Miami Dolphins–Carolina Panthers game. Slender as a switch, he wore a white shirt and dark slacks; a flight jacket was slung over his high-backed leather chair. As we talked, mainly about the Middle East, his eyes wandered to the game. Reports of multiple concussions and retired players with early-onset dementia had been in the news all year, and so, before I left, I asked if he didn’t feel at all ambivalent about following the sport. He didn’t.
“I would not let my son play pro football,” he conceded. “But, I mean, you wrote a lot about boxing, right? We’re sort of in the same realm.”
The Miami defense was taking on a Keystone Kops quality, and Obama, who had lost hope on a Bears contest, was starting to lose interest in the Dolphins. “At this point, there’s a little bit of caveat emptor,” he went on. “These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”
Obama chewed furtively on a piece of Nicorette. His carriage and the cadence of his conversation are usually so measured that I was thrown by the lingering habit, the trace of indiscipline. “I’m not a purist,” he said.”