Jodi Kantor in NYT: Obama Carving 'Own Grand Place' in History While Fighting Tea Party 'Nativism'

The New York Times at least saved Jodi Kantor's gushing over Obama until the votes were in. Kantor, political reporter and sympathetic Obama biographer, penned the pompously headlined "Now, a Chance to Catch Up to his Epochal Vision," about private dinners Obama took with left-wing professors to calibrate the strategy of his presidency and lauded "the urgency and seriousness that he brought to his role, as well as his frustration that others did not see him and his priorities as he did," a figure "who preferred to think in terms of the sweep of years rather than of the tick of hours or days." 

From the first time Barack Obama summoned the country’s leading presidential historians to dinner, they saw that the type of discussion he wanted would be different from their talks with previous Oval Office occupants.

There was almost no small talk, for this was no idle exercise. Though Mr. Obama knew many of his predecessors’ stories cold, he was no history buff: he showed little curiosity about their personalities and almost no interest in the founding fathers. His goal, the historians realized, was more strategic. He wanted to apply the lessons of past presidential triumphs and failures to his own urgent project of setting the country on a new path.

At three private annual gatherings during his first years in office, he asked pointed questions: How did Ronald Reagan engineer his 1984 re-election despite a poor economy? Where did the Tea Party fit in the tradition of American protest movements? Theodore Roosevelt bypassed Congress to launch progressive programs; could Mr. Obama do the same?

The president was coolly eyeing American history in order to carve his own grand place in it, the guests said in interviews later. “It was almost as if he was writing his own history book about himself,” said David M. Kennedy, a professor at Stanford University. Becoming the 44th president of the United States, or even the first African-American to hold the post, had never been enough for Barack Obama. Just two years after arriving in the Senate, he spoke unabashedly of becoming one of the greatest presidents, a transformative figure like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt who would heal the country’s divisions, address its most critical problems and turn Americans in a hopeful new direction.


In their dinners together, which form a mini-history of the Obama presidency, the scholars could see the urgency and seriousness that he brought to his role, as well as his frustration that others did not see him and his priorities as he did. He seemed like a leader whose internal clock never quite matched that of the political system, who preferred to think in terms of the sweep of years rather than of the tick of hours or days.

Mr. Obama expressed impatience with his “inability to get people to think long term,” said H. W. Brands of the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s hard to make a case for solutions to problems where you’re not going to feel either the problem or the solution,” he recalled Mr. Obama saying.

That was why the president seemed to relish those dinners, the historians surmised: they were an antidote to the cable television news shows and moment to moment political wrangling he disparaged. Each time, he would go around the table, asking the largely left-tilting group how he was doing and what he could learn from the men they had studied, according to interviews with eight biographers who attended.

The "scholars" were united in both admiration for Obama and seething hostility and lack of understanding of the Tea Party.

A year later, when Mr. Obama invited the scholars back to the White House, his mood had darkened. He was struggling to understand the Tea Party and a level of opposition he said was “not normal” by historical standards. Several of the scholars told him that the Tea Party members were like the 19th century Populists, less motivated by economic self-interest than by nativism and a fear of modernity. “It’s the politics of resentment,” [Robert] Dallek said. The president seemed to agree, Mr. Dallek recalled later, replying, “There’s something subterranean about what these folks are saying.”

It's no surprise that Dallek is one of the Times' favorite liberal, Republican-bashing "scholars."