No, Obama — I Said More Bullsh*t, Not Bulworth


Peter Baker reports that President Obama occasionally fantasizes, as many presidents do, of imitating a 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a politician who suddenly started saying exactly what he thought:

Mr. Obama also expresses exasperation. In private, he 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.

You can see Obama’s Bulworth fantasies popping out from time to time, especially when reporters ask him why he can’t force Republicans to pass sensible compromises. Here is an excerpt from a recent press conference where Obama went slightly Bulworth:

Question: Mr. President, to your question, what could you do - first of all, couldn’t you just have them down here and refuse to let them leave the room until you have a deal? (Laughter.)

Obama: I mean, Jessica, I am not a dictator. I’m the President. So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, we need to go to catch a plane, I can't have Secret Service block the doorway, right? So -

Question: But isn’t that part of leadership? I’m sorry to interrupt, but isn’t –

I understand. And I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that's been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I’m being reasonable, that most people agree I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don't take it means that I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right. Well, they're elected. We have a constitutional system of government. The Speaker of the House and the leader of the Senate and all those folks have responsibilities.

What I can do is I can make the best possible case for why we need to do the right thing. I can speak to the American people about the consequences of the decisions that Congress is making or the lack of decision-making by Congress. But, ultimately, it’s a choice they make.

The trouble is that these answers, while true, don’t actually help Obama. Any political scientist will tell you that the scope for possible legislation in this term is very narrow: The median House member is a very conservative Republican who represents a district that voted for Mitt Romney, and whose biggest political risk is losing a primary to an even more conservative Republican.

But most political reporters and analysts don’t pay attention to the political science. They like narratives that revolve around the president as a protagonist. When you confront them with structural analysis that confounds their narratives, they just get upset with you. It serves no purpose. That’s why I advised Obama to use “less real talk and more bullshit.”

A post-presidency Obama who actually spoke his mind, rather than fashion himself a post-partisan eminence, as post-presidents do — now that would be awesome. But the reason politicians don’t go Bulworth is that it doesn’t work. The truth about legislative dynamics is complicated and depressing. People don’t want to hear it.

Last night, for example, Obama said of the IRS scandal, “The good news is it’s fixable, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to work together to fix it.” That is some prime-caliber bullshit. Of course it’s not in the Republicans’ best interest to fix the problems with IRS enforcement. It’s in their interest to prevent any fix and let the problems linger as long as possible.

But if he had said that, there would have been a huge outcry, and probably a presidential apology. Nobody objected to Obama’s faux-naïve claim that Republicans will naturally want to solve the problem. Bullshit works. Bulworth doesn’t.