I am an Aaron Sorkin fan. I particularly like his two dramas focused on the American Presidency. One, The American President, features Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd. The other, The West Wing, features Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet. Both men are liberal democrats. And, both men have what our Governor would call a backbone. Yesterday, at his first post-election press conference, President Barack Obama sounded like nothing so much as a Sorkin character and demonstrated, during his impassioned defense of Susan Rice, his backbone. It was great to see.
Susan Rice is the United States’s ambassador to the United Nations. On the Sunday morning after the tragic events in Benghazi, she appeared on various talk shows. On those programs, she linked the attacks in Benghazi to a You Tube film depicting Muhammad in a very disrespectful way. Time has proven her analysis wrong and many contend that her comments on those programs were deliberately misleading. Indeed, for some, her comments are evidence of a vast conspiracy that they think will take the administration down.
There are recent suggestions that Ambassador Rice is President Obama’s choice to be Secretary of State (replacing Hillary Clinton). Yesterday, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham reacted loudly to these suggestions. Senator McCain called her “unqualified” and said that he and Senator Graham would work to block any such nomination. When confronted with these comments, our typically mild-mannered President responded with force. He said: “If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. . . . And I am happy to have that discussion with them.” He called their comments “outrageous.” Said differently, he made very clear that he was ready to fight for his people and his ideals.
This is not, in manner or tone, the President we watched during the last four years. That President didn’t manage directness. That President did not call out the opposition and suggest that he was ready for a debate. Instead, during his first term, President Obama stayed above (or maybe more accurately, beside) the fray. As a consequence, he appeared imperious and unwilling to compromise. The absence of backbone in his public presentation made it very easy for the other side to treat him with disdain and to focus on electoral politics rather than government. It will be much harder for the GOP to block forward progress if the administration is actually in the fight.
In The American President, President Shepherd has an aloofness problem. He does not seem to understand that politics requires engagement and that a President who hides in the White House can get hit from all sides. His nemesis is played by Richard Dreyfus who, in all seriousness, looks a little like a combination of McCain and Dick Cheney. For much of the movie, the opposition candidate takes shot after shot at Shepherd without meaningful response. Finally, he makes a nasty comment about the President’s girlfriend. And this wakes Shepherd up — he walks into the press room and talks to the press: “You want a character debate? Fine, but you better stick with me, ’cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.” His intensity increases as he summarizes his goals (“[y]ou cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and handguns”) and then he concludes — “My name’s Andrew Shepherd and I am the President.”
That’s what happened yesterday (watch the movie and the press conference back to back and see if you disagree). Barack Obama reminded us that he is the President (and that he knows it). It’s as if he found his backbone somewhere on the campaign trail and that he is now ready to stand up and say what he feels and believes. Here’s hoping we see more of this intensity from him over the next four years. It is, after all, part of why we elected him in the first place.
2/17/2013 — John Kerry is Secretary of State. Susan Rice is not. Think about that.