Last week I offered my choices for five of the most revealing moments of the Obama presidency. We could all probably come up with five gaffes or “defining” moments or gaffes for the highlight reel (one might be this week’s deal on tax cuts). But what I was trying to find were the moments that hinted at a larger truth about Obama, many of which would not be included in those other obvious lists. I asked readers to respond with their suggestions, and you did. Here are your offerings:
1) News conference July 22, 2009: In the final answer of this session, the president weighed in on the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, an African-American. “Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof he was in own home. … What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately,” Obama said. “That’s just a fact.” I had always thought of this answer as bad message discipline: The purpose of the press conference was to talk about health care. By weighing in on this controversy, Obama made the story bigger and inserted himself into it. It’s not often that Obama suffers a lapse like this; lack of discipline is not one of Obama’s core qualities.
A faithful correspondent made a larger case for why it was revealing: “The tone and substance of his remarks are of a piece with the tone and substance of his comments about Republican ‘hostage takers’ and ‘bombthrowers’ and ‘sanctimonious’ Democrats,” my correspondent writes. “He has a willingness to rhetorically characterize the motives and behaviors of people who disagree with him.”
2) House Republican retreat, Jan. 29, 2010: I hadn’t included this on the list because while I think the president’s conversation with House Republicans was great theater and a strong performance by the president, it didn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know about him. It’s not that surprising that Obama could give a strong performance in a public setting. It also didn’t change the political dynamic much, though it certainly heartened his boosters. Readers suggested this dialogue did tell us something, though, because it was the first time we saw the president in public demonstrating how well briefed he was on the substance of economic and health care policy.
3) Meeting with congressional leaders, Jan. 23, 2009: The president, in a debate with House Minority Whip Eric Cantor over the shape of stimulus legislation, is reported to have said, “I won.” For Republicans, the moment revealed that there were severe limitations to how much he was willing to work with the opposition. For Democrats, the moment was an early sign that his pledges to cooperate did not mean he would be a pushover.
4) Remarks in Charlotte, N.C., April 2, 2010: During a question-and-answer session with workers at an advanced battery plant, a woman said she was “overtaxed,” and the president responded with a speech. He went on for 17 minutes, offering more than 2,500 words, covering everything from the deficit to congressional budget rules to Federal Medical Assistance percentages. Thus did the president show the downside of one the things people liked about his performance with the House Republicans: his command of detail. In Charlotte, he knew a lot—and he couldn’t stop showing it. Meanwhile, he wasn’t really communicating with the voter who stood before him.
Compulsive Triangulator?: Josh Cohen of Stanford and Glenn Loury of Brown in a Blogginheads debate on whether Obama is compromising his brand away.