A Relaxed Obama Talks to Rolling Stone

The relatively long interview that the president conducted with Jann Wenner and Eric Bates of the Rolling Stone was short on fireworks or revelations or new policy pronouncements, but was a pretty good indication of Obama’s political and policy fluency at this stage of his presidency. As the title of the published interview indicated, he seems “Ready for the fight.” Sure, there was a lot of light banter of the sort interviewers conduct with presidents to set them at ease. Since this was for Rolling Stone, there was more talk than would otherwise be the case about his musical interests. Fans of Obama, and enemies cutting and pasting lines for the next characterization of the president as an elitist comfortable with hippies, drug abusers, and sodomites, will both find this stuff interesting.

Wenner and Bates also asked several questions reflecting ongoing concerns of progressives ambivalent about Obama’s priorities and tactics, dealing with marriage equality, drug enforcement, prosecution of corporate criminals, and climate change. By and large, Obama was persuasive in dealing with these concerns, albeit a mite defensive.

But the real heart of the interview involved his views on Republicans, and how he will characterize them in the coming general election campaign. Obama by no means abandoned his pleasant talk about most Republicans being decent people of good will. He even said nice things about John Boehner, which, all things being considered, might have been designed to bug the hell out of him. For the most part, he blamed Republican obstructionism and extremism on the “political class and activists” generally, and on ideological commissars like Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist. He expressed hopes that another electoral defeat for the GOP might “break the fever” (an apt choice of words) and reempower Republicans who want to return to those “traditions in which a Dwight Eisenhower can build an interstate highway system.”

But Obama left no doubt that he would not include Mitt Romney in that charmed circle of “decent Republicans” who are simply being misled (in both senses of the word). Mitt’s the chief “misleader”:

I think the general election will be as sharp a contrast between the two parties as we’ve seen in a generation. You have a Republican Party, and a presumptive Republican nominee, that believes in drastically rolling back environmental regulations, that believes in drastically rolling back collective-bargaining rights, that believes in an approach to deficit reduction in which taxes are cut further for the wealthiest Americans, and spending cuts are entirely borne by things like education or basic research or care for the vulnerable. All this will be presumably written into their platform and reflected in their convention. I don’t think that their nominee is going to be able to suddenly say, “Everything I’ve said for the last six months, I didn’t mean.” I’m assuming that he meant it. When you’re running for president, people are paying attention to what you’re saying.

Overall, Obama (and for that matter, his campaign and spokespersons) seems to be describing today’s GOP as in the midst of a “1964 moment,” in which its most responsible elements have been either cowed into silence or deluded by the fantasy of rolling back decades of progressive accomplishments. While Mitt Romney may not much resemble Barry Goldwater, there’s a good case to be made for depicting him as an unfortunate combination of Goldwater’s policies and Nixon’s sincerity and ethics. You get the sense that’s where the Obama campaign is headed right now.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.