An Open Letter to Journalists: President Obama Is A Politician
Dear fellow journalists,
Enough with the Mahatma Obama shtick already.
For years, reporters have been starting their stories about the president with the same melodramatic paragraph, give or take a few words: "Barack Obama soared to power on the strength of his inspirational mantra of hope and change. But now, with this latest negative ad/reversal of position/nakedly self-serving maneuver, he’s abandoning the high ground and becoming Just Another Politician. Aren’t you shocked!?!?"
The latest offender is John Heilemann, whose otherwise excellent New York cover story, “Hope: The Sequel,”  justifies its existence with a particularly souped-up recapitulation of the whole “He’s Just Another Politician Now” line. “For anyone still starry-eyed about Obama,” Heilemann writes, “the months ahead will provide a bracing revelation about what he truly is: not a savior, not a saint, not a man above the fray, but a brass-knuckled, pipe-hitting, red-in-tooth-and-claw brawler determined to do what is necessary to stay in power.”
The problem with Heilemann’s argument, and the identical arguments that preceded it, should be obvious to anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to politics: it’s a total strawman. There was a time, I suppose, when sentient human beings may have been shocked to discover that Obama, much like everyone else who had ever run for president, was a politician—and when journalists may have been allowed to tout this “revelation” as news. That time ended more than four years ago. At the latest.
Let us return, then, to the spring of 2008. Obama was leading Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary race, but he was unable to finish her off. So he spent the season doing precisely what Heilemann says he’s only beginning to do now: “what [was] necessary to stay in power.” Pressuring superdelegates to end the race early. Having surrogates tell reporters that Clinton was “dividing the party.” Intensifying his attacks. Et cetera.
His politician-like behavior did not go unnoticed. “The more I see Obama in action the more I realize he’s no less a typical politician than any other man or woman who’s ever run for president,” wrote blogger Alan Stewart Carl. “Anyone who votes for him because they think he will transform politics as we know it is deceiving themselves. The man plays the game extremely well, but he’s not going to be changing the rules.” The Economist, meanwhile, described Obama as “a politician running for political office”; a Huffington Post headline announced that “Yes, Virginia, Obama Is a Politician.”.
Once the Illinois senator clinched the Democratic nomination, his politician-ness became even more apparent. Under headlines like “IN CAMPAIGN, ONE MAN’S PRAGMATISM IS ANOTHER’S FLIP-FLOPPING,” the big papers began to assemble a list of matters on which the candidate had “changed his position,” including Iraq, abortion rights, federal aid to faith-based social services, capital punishment, gun control, public financing of campaigns, and wiretapping, as the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg noted at the time. Some of these changes were shifts of emphasis; others, like Obama’s decision to forsake public financing, were bald-faced, opportunistic flip-flops. All of them, however, provided the press and the public with unmistakable evidence that the future president was a politician capable of acting like a politician. Liberals—the same liberals whom Heilemann imagines being “still starry-eyed about Obama”—were especially aghast. “I’m disgusted with him,” one told the New York Times. “I can’t even listen to him anymore. He had such an opportunity, but all this ‘audacity of hope’ stuff, it’s blah, blah, blah.”
Obama went on to air at least as many negative ads as any other candidate in U.S. history; to abandon immigration reform, despite promising to pass it in his first year; and to break various other campaign pledges —all further proof, if any were still needed, that he was neither savior nor saint but rather a mere mortal engaged in the same messy political process as every single one of his Oval Office predecessors. Obama himself admitted as much as far back as April 2008. “I'm a pretty darn good politician," he told Jewish voters in Philadelphia. "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't pretty good at mixing it up.”
In other words, we have known for years now that Obama is one of those dreaded politician types—and a “pretty darn good” one at that. So why do scribes such as Heilemann keep insisting that we don’t? The reason is simple, and self-serving: claiming that now (and only now) is Obama deciding to become a “brass-knuckled, pipe-hitting, red-in-tooth-and-claw brawler”—while touting yourself as the person who will finally pull the wool from the electorate’s eyes and expose the president for the abject politician he really is, underneath all that hope and change baloney—makes your story sound more revelatory, more newsworthy, more dramatic, more historic than everyone else’s. The truth is that Obama, much like JFK, FDR, and even Lincoln, has always blended inspirational rhetoric with sharp-elbowed political maneuvering, and that this blend has been the key to his electoral success from the start. But the truth doesn’t have the same “Breaking News!” ring to it.
Which is too bad, really, because whatever the public polling might say, being a politician isn’t a bad thing, especially in politics. In fact, it’s necessary. By pretending that Obama is suddenly morphing from Mother Teresa to Lee Atwater, journalists like Heilemann are actually reinforcing the Republican Party’s talking points: that Obama is not who he says he is; that hope and change was a lie. So let’s declare a moratorium on the false naiveté, OK? From now on, everyone should just assume that presidential candidates are politicians. Obama is a politician. Romney is a politician. May the best politician win.