Hanging out with the president—on the basketball court, in the White House residence, and on Air Force One—provides an eye-opening lesson in what it takes to lead the free world, as well as an unparalleled portrait of Barack Obama.
The gist of Obama’s advice to any would-be president is something like this: You may think that the presidency is essentially a public-relations job. Relations with the public are indeed important, maybe now more than ever, as public opinion is the only tool he has for pressuring an intractable opposition to agree on anything. He admits that he has been guilty, at times, of misreading the public. He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them. He thought the other side would pay a bigger price for inflicting damage on the country for the sake of defeating a president. But the idea that he might somehow frighten Congress into doing what he wanted was, to him, clearly absurd. “All of these forces have created an environment in which the incentives for politicians to cooperate don’t function the way they used to,” he said. “L.B.J. operated in an environment in which if he got a couple of committee chairmen to agree he had a deal. Those chairmen didn’t have to worry about a Tea Party challenge. About cable news. That model has progressively shifted for each president. It’s not a fear-versus-a-nice-guy approach that is the choice. The question is: How do you shape public opinion and frame an issue so that it’s hard for the opposition to say no. And these days you don’t do that by saying, ‘I’m going to withhold an earmark,’ or ‘I’m not going to appoint your brother-in-law to the federal bench.’”