The Obama of the New Yorker profile wears the limitations of his office like a shawl. “At the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story,” the president says. “We just try to get our paragraph right.” At another time he describes himself as “a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history.” To the crowd at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser that applauds a heckler’s insistence he use more executive orders, Remnick reports him responding: “Before everybody starts clapping, that’s not how it works. We’ve got this Constitution, we’ve got this whole thing about separation of powers. So there is no shortcut to politics, and there’s no shortcut to democracy.” His parting words to Remnick are about limits. “The President of the United States cannot remake our society, and that’s probably a good thing. Not ‘probably.’ It’s definitely a good thing.”
The president talks about income inequality and fighting for the middle class as the driving motives for his presidency’s final years, but there’s a lack of ardor. It’s the difference between reading a story about someone saying they’re going to run a marathon and reading one where they are running hills each morning at 5 a.m. In this narrative, the president is mostly described working his will on high-dollar Democratic donors whose money he’ll need for the bruising midterm elections — which will add another set of constraints to action.
The president’s comments reflect the triumph of experience over hope. He long ago tempered his claims about transforming partisan politics — he now seems a little embarrassed about the whole thing. But the tone of the piece also shows how realistic he has become about harnessing the power of his electoral success and the national mood he claimed it represented. That was a promise of the Obama presidency that didn’t rely on a willing Congress. He had a special relationship with voters and he was going to turn it into a force. He called on that bond in his second inaugural address: “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”