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Obama at length: Why he falls flat in an endless New Yorker interview

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Jan. 17, 2014: President Obama talks about National Security Agency surveillance at the Justice Department in Washington. (AP)

Also: 

-- Yahoo scores Christie interview

-- Seahawk’s tirade sparks racism

Obama at length: Why he falls flat in an endless New Yorker interview

In the course of 17,000 words, Barack Obama had plenty of time to make his case.

And yet, after granting extraordinary access to New Yorker Editor David Remnick, the president gave the sense of a man marking time, hoping to consolidate his gains, abandoning what he once billed as the audacity of hope.

This was not a confrontational series of interviews, and Obama, speaking as usual in perfect paragraphs, gave nods to both sides of just about every issue. That is to say, he failed to drive a message, as the political pros say. So the piece itself is a metaphor for the stalled state of his presidency.

If Obama was going to invest that much time with Remnick, you’d think he would want a headline about rebooting for the rest of his second term, or displaying new passion on this or that issue, or sticking it to the opposition, or somehow advancing his agenda. Instead, we get a lot of meandering.

Remnick was on “Morning Joe” yesterday, talking about the “Morning Joe” view of Obama. And yet the president never effectively rebutted this indictment, which the editor presents as conventional wisdom:

“He is said to be a reluctant politician: aloof, insular, diffident, arrogant, inert, unwilling to jolly his allies along the fairway and take a 9-iron to his enemies. He doesn’t know anyone in Congress. No one in the House or in the Senate, no one in foreign capitals fears him. He gives a great speech, but he doesn’t understand power. He is a poor executive. Doesn’t it seem as if he hates the job? And so on. This is the knowing talk on Wall Street, on K Street, on Capitol Hill, in green rooms — the ‘Morning Joe’ consensus.”

In fact, asked what he wants to accomplish in the next three years — a hanging curve ball of a question — Obama whiffs:

“I will measure myself at the end of my presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society.” Laudable goals, but to “begin the process of rebuilding” isn’t exactly a rallying cry, nor concrete enough to be measured.

Even Remnick, many thousands of words in, refers to him as the “Professor-in-Chief.”

Even though Remnick’s goal is to probe Obama the person, it’s hard to understand why, given the vast acreage, he didn’t press more on ObamaCare, given how central that law and its botched rollout is to the legacy that the president discusses.

One Obama comment that’s gotten some attention has to do with race. But it’s been selectively quoted by some, while the full observation is rather unremarkable. “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president.” That, as Remnick pointed out, is hardly playing the race card. Obama also invokes Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in defending his insistence on speaking out about personal responsibility in the African-American community. The New Yorker piece has also generated headlines about Obama seeming soft on marijuana — but here too, he straddles the issue. “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” The president goes on to say that minorities disproportionately wind up in jail on pot charges.

Obama pushes back against the notion that he has failed to impose his will on Congress because he is so hands-off, and the story notes that John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders declined his invitation to a White House screening of “Lincoln.” Obama invokes the “Godfather” in saying, “It turns out Marlon Brando had it easy, because, when it comes to Congress, there is no such thing as an offer they can’t refuse.”

What about his dealings with the media? Inspired about “journalism telling truth to power” by the movie “All the President’s Men,” Obama nonetheless says that “a lot of the tensions that have existed between my White House and the press are inherent in the institution. The press always wants more, and every White House, including ours, is trying to make sure that the things that we care most about are what’s being reported on, and that we’re not on any given day chasing after 15 story lines.”

To me the real news in the piece is Obama’s embrace of Clintonism, which he once derided as small ball that paled alongside Ronald Reagan’s sweeping vision. Now 44 invokes 42, saying:
“There were times in our history where Democrats didn’t seem to be paying enough attention to the concerns of middle-class folks or working-class folks, black or white,” he said. “And this was one of the great gifts of Bill Clinton to the Party — to say, you know what, it’s entirely legitimate for folks to be concerned about getting mugged, and you can’t just talk about police abuse. How about folks not feeling safe outside their homes? It’s all fine and good for you to want to do something about poverty, but if the only mechanism you have is raising taxes on folks who are already feeling strapped, then maybe you need to widen your lens a little bit.”

And, Obama adds, “progressives sometimes get frustrated with me” over his view that the welfare state had gotten “bloated.” 

What’s striking here is that the right views the president as a relentless liberal, the man who pushed through ObamaCare, raised taxes on the wealthy and supports gay marriage (while some on the left see him as perpetuating George W. Bush’s surveillance state). He is, at the very least, a man who loves to give speeches and talk to the likes of the New Yorker. But when given the platform, the president described himself as “a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids”—more buffeted by history than changing it.

Yahoo scores Christie interview

Yahoo News gets on the board with Chris Christie’s first interview since the bridge scandal erupted.

Christie tells former New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai that the media explosion has been “completely disorienting, like I got hit across the forehead with a two-by-four.”

Here’s the interesting part, the New Jersey governor telling Yahoo he’s not an angry guy: “It doesn’t mean I don’t get angry – everybody gets angry. But they confuse sometimes, if you’re blunt and you’re direct and you just say things the way you see them, that that’s anger. More times than not, it’s not anger with me. It’s just my personality.” And there’s this: “Part of politics is trying to have sharp elbows publicly in order to make a deal privately.”

Tough guy image or not, Christie acknowledged the last two weeks has been a searing experience: “I don’t think anybody knows what it feels like to have the kind of attention that I’ve had in the last nine days until you go through it. It’s awful. Listen, it’s awful. I can explain to you as vividly as you like, but you won’t get it.”

Seahawk’s tirade sparks racism

I was stunned after the Seahawks beat the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman launched into an angry on-air diatribe.

On the sidelines with Fox Sports’ Erin Andrews, Sherman ranted in front of the camera, even though his team was going to the Super Bowl on the strength of his end-zone deflection of a pass to San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree that wound up in the hands of a Seattle teammate. Even though the two men had been trash-talking, and Crabtree had shoved him after the play, Sherman he came off as rude and a sore winner.

“I’m the best corner in the game,” Sherman shouted. “When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get. Don’t you ever talk about me…Don’t you open your mouth about the best or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick.”

But what happened next was ugly, lots of tweeters throwing the N-word at him and making other racist remarks. Sherman responds on a Sports Illustrated blog:

“To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field—don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.

“But people find it easy to take shots on Twitter, and to use racial slurs and bullying language far worse than what you’ll see from me. It’s sad and somewhat unbelievable to me that the world is still this way, but it is. I can handle it.”

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.