Best parts of the New Yorker profile on Obama

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The New Yorker’s David Remnick has a lengthy profile based on several interviews with President Barack Obama. We’ve pulled the highlights.

He doesn’t know what he’ll do about NSA leaker Edward Snowden: “I do not have a yes/no answer on clemency for Edward Snowden. This is an active case, where charges have been brought.”

Obama thinks the public may be over him: “Well, look, we live in a very fast-moving culture,” Obama said. “And, by definition, the President of the United States is overexposed, and it is natural, after six, seven years of me being on the national stage, that people start wanting to see . . . ‘Is there somebody else out there who can give me that spark of inspiration or excitement?’ I don’t spend too much time worrying about that.”

On Obama’s black critics: ”There have been times where some thoughtful and sometimes not so thoughtful African-American commentators have gotten on both Michelle and me, suggesting that we are not addressing enough sort of institutional barriers and racism, and we’re engaging in sort of up-by-the-bootstraps, Booker T. Washington messages that let the larger society off the hook.” Obama thought that this reaction was sometimes knee-jerk. “I always tell people to go read some of Dr. King’s writings about the African-American community. For that matter, read Malcolm X. . . . There’s no contradiction to say that there are issues of personal responsibility that have to be addressed, while still acknowledging that some of the specific pathologies in the African-American community are a direct result of our history.”

He makes an almost-offensive joke about Michelle: A woman told the President that she was six months pregnant. She didn’t look it. “Whoa! Don’t tell that to Michelle. She’ll be all . . .”

Obama doesn’t watch the big political weekend talk shows: “I don’t watch Sunday-morning shows,” he said. “That’s been a well-established rule.”

Michelle Obama is writing a memoir: When Obama leaves the White House, on January 20, 2017, he will write a memoir. “Now, that’s a slam dunk,” the former Obama adviser David Axelrod told me. Andrew Wylie, a leading literary agent, said he thought that publishers would pay between seventeen and twenty million dollars for the book—the most ever for a work of nonfiction—and around twelve million for Michelle Obama’s memoirs. (The First Lady has already started work on hers.)

He had big ambitions for his presidency: In 2007, at the start of Obama’s Presidential campaign, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband, Richard Goodwin, who worked in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, visited him in his Senate office. “I have no desire to be one of those Presidents who are just on the list—you see their pictures lined up on the wall,” Obama told them. “I really want to be a President who makes a difference.”

Obama on racism: “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

He thinks the Republican Party is going through “a process”: “[T]his was one of the great gifts of Bill Clinton to the Party—to say, you know what, it’s entirely legitimate for folks to be concerned about getting mugged, and you can’t just talk about police abuse. How about folks not feeling safe outside their homes? It’s all fine and good for you to want to do something about poverty, but if the only mechanism you have is raising taxes on folks who are already feeling strapped, then maybe you need to widen your lens a little bit. And I think that the Democratic Party is better for it. But that was a process. And I am confident that the Republicans will go through that same process.”

On his gay marriage evolution: The politician sensitive to winds and currents was visible in Obama’s coy talk of his “evolving” position on gay marriage. Obama conceded in one of our later conversations only that it’s “fair to say that I may have come to that realization slightly before I actually made the announcement” favoring gay marriage, in May of 2012. “But this was not a situation where I kind of did a wink and a nod and a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn.” The turn may not have been a sudden one-eighty; to say that your views are “evolving,” though, is to say there is a position that you consider to be more advanced than the one you officially hold. And he held the “evolved” position in 1996, when, as a candidate for the Illinois state senate, he filled out a questionnaire from Outlines, a local gay and lesbian newspaper, saying, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages.”

Obama doesn’t think pot is any worse than alcohol: “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

He doesn’t think he and Michelle are parental “prudes”: “Precisely because I didn’t have a father in the home and moved around a lot as a kid and had a wonderfully loving mom and grandparents, but not a lot of structure growing up, I emerged on the other side of that with an appreciation for family and marriage and structure for the kids. I’m sure that’s part of why Michelle and her family held such appeal to me in the first place, because she did grow up with that kind of structure. And now, as parents, I don’t think we’re being particularly conservative—we’re actually not prudes. . . . But, as parents, what we have seen, both in our own family and among our friends, is that kids with structure have an easier time of it.”

A German magazine editor’s depressing thoughts on Obama: Josef Joffe, the hawkish editor of Die Zeit, the highbrow German weekly, told me, “There is certainly consistency and coherence in his attempt to retract from the troubles of the world, to get the U.S. out of harm’s way, in order to do ‘a little nation-building at home,’ as he has so often put it. If you want to be harsh about it, he wants to turn the U.S. into a very large medium power, into an XXL France or Germany.”

Obama gets testy in defending his position on using military drones abroad: “Look, you wrestle with it,” Obama said. “And those who have questioned our drone policy are doing exactly what should be done in a democracy—asking some tough questions. The only time I get frustrated is when folks act like it’s not complicated and there aren’t some real tough decisions, and are sanctimonious, as if somehow these aren’t complicated questions. Listen, as I have often said to my national-security team, I didn’t run for office so that I could go around blowing things up.”