The Slatest

Obama Dreams of “Going Bulworth,’ Not Bartlet

President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation regarding the Internal Revenue Service May 15, 2013 in the East Room of the White House

Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Somewhat buried in the New York Times’ A1 story today on President Obama’s second-term woes is this rather awesome anecdote suggesting that the president’s Hollywood fantasy is more Beatty and Bulworth than Sorkin and Bartlet:

In private, [the president] has talked longingly of “going Bulworth,” a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty’s character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama’s desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him.

“Probably every president says that from time to time,” said David Axelrod, another longtime adviser who has heard Mr. Obama’s movie-inspired aspiration. “It’s probably cathartic just to say it. But the reality is that while you want to be truthful, you want to be straightforward, you also want to be practical about whatever you’re saying.”

The cinematic allusion seems striking given Mr. Obama’s rejection of Hollywood’s version of the White House, what one former aide calls “the Harry Potter theory of the presidency,” which suggests that he could wave a wand and make things happen.

This appears to be the first time Obama’s inner circle has talked openly of this specific movie reference. Instead, the White House and the president himself have been more likely to reference fictional presidents crafted by Aaron Sorkin—although mostly in an attempt to quash the idea that the only thing Obama needs to end Washington’s partisan gridlock is a few well-timed walk-and-talks. At last month’s White House Correspondents Association dinner, Obama cracked wise about the idea that he should model himself after the characters liberals love, like the West Wing’s Jed Bartlet and The American President’s Andrew Shepherd. Turning to Michael Douglas, who played Shepherd, Obama jokingly asked what his secret was: “Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?”

As New York’s Jonathan Chait points out this moring, we’ve seen Obama go ever-so slightly Bulworth in the past but he’s unlikely to ever go full-Beatty. “The reason politicians don’t go Bulworth is that it doesn’t work,” Chait argues. “The truth about legislative dynamics is complicated and depressing. People don’t want to hear it.”

For those who need a refresher on Bulworth, you can hit the archives and check out Slate’s review of it here, or watch the trailer below. (As you’ll see, it’s a safe bet that when Obama’s talking about “going Bulworth,” he’s painting in broad brush strokes.)