The White House/Pete Souza
President Barack Obama talks with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel following a meeting with President Lee Myung-bak of the Republic of Korea in the Oval Office, June 16.
Like Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama gets upset with journalists.
He was once upset with Your Ward Room Blogger. In 2000, before blogging was invented, I wrote a cover story for the Reader about Obama’s campaign against Congressman Bobby Rush. Obama lost that race, for all the reasons I detailed in the piece: he was pompous, arrogant, pedantic, disdained by his state senate colleagues, and out of touch with the constituents he was trying to represent. I thought he should have been running for the Senate, where those qualities are valued.
What was Obama’s reaction? Years later, Capitol Fax publisher Rich Miller told me he had a soul-searching conversation with Obama after that defeat. The Reader story played a role in Obama’s realization that if he wanted to get ahead in politics, he was going to have to get his nose out of the air and stop trying to cruise through life on the fact that he’d been the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Miller had also criticized Obama’s campaign.
“He took that criticism the right way,” Miller said, “and he could have taken it the wrong way. A lot of politicians, they know that they’re smart. They know that they’re capable. It messes with their minds. Politics is not a game of qualifications. It’s a game of winning. That congressional campaign really showed that to him.”
A year later, I talked to Obama about a voting rights bill he was sponsoring. When I thanked him for his time, he ended the call with a frosty “you’re welcome.” And he wasn’t above dressing down reporters. Todd Spivak of the Illinois Times received a wrathful phone call after writing, “It can be painful to hear Ivy League-bred Barack Obama talk jive.”
The next time I conducted a full-length interview with Obama was in January 2004, when he was a long-shot candidate for the U.S. Senate. His press secretary complained the 2000 article had been “negative,” but Obama never mentioned that to me. Instead, he greeted me by gliding across the floor like Fred Astaire playing Abe Lincoln, and remarking, “good to see you again.” He spent the next 45 minutes talking about his plans to expand government health care for children and his opposition to the Iraq war.
Obama was no longer selling himself. Now, he had a legislative goal and a strategy for making it happen. Or maybe, because he knew I was one of his skeptics, he was selling me on the idea that he wasn't selling himself. In the words of an old police reporter, Obama makes grease look gritty. Just as he was looking two moves ahead, politically, I’m sure he was two moves ahead of my expectations. It was working. I was impressed that he finally believed in something. This time, I wrote a flattering article.
That’s one explanation for why Obama is president, and Emanuel never will be. Obama tries to charm his critics. Emanuel wants to punish them. While Obama has granted an interview to Fox News, Emanuel has refused to appear on Meet the Press since he was grilled by David Gregory in 2009. Obama may go off on print reporters, but he’s disciplined enough not to throw a fit when the cameras are rolling. He knows it will go viral, as the less-controlled Emanuel’s encounter with Mary Ann Ahern did.
If Obama was upset about something a journalist wrote, only the journalist knew it. If Emanuel is upset, he makes sure everyone knows it.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!