When Presidents Get Bored

According to the Financial Times (h/t Doug Henwood), Obama is bored in the White House. The smallness of politics is tedious; he longs for more exalted pursuits:

“Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things on politics,” Mr Obama complained after a dinner last month with Italian intellectuals in Rome. His cabin fever is tangible. On the plus side, there are only two-and-a-half years to go.

Reminds me of another thoughtful man in power. Alexis de Tocqueville served in the Chamber of Deputies throughout the July Monarchy. Despite his rhetorical support for liberal-ish democracy, the reality—parliaments, the rule of law, legislative haggling—bored him to tears. A “little democratic and bourgeois pot of soup” was how he described it to one of his closest friends. “Do you believe,” he wrote another of his correspondents, “that the political world will long remain as destitute of true passions as it is at this moment?” What is “most wanting,” he wrote another, is “political life itself.”

Beware politicians pining for “political life itself.” These men of ideas—what Theodore White called “action intellectuals”—tend to look for that life in the most deadly of places.

Usually abroad, in foreign wars and imperial exploits. As the British prepared to fight the Opium War, Tocqueville privately exulted, “I can only rejoice in the thought of the invasion of the Celestial Empire by a European War. So at last the mobility of Europe has come to grips with Chinese immobility!” Upon the conclusion of the Treaty of London, which threatened to diminish France’s role in the Middle East and aroused cries for war throughout France, Tocqueville wrote Mill that though he was wary of the rush to war, he thought it “even more dangerous” to “chime in with those who were loudly asking for peace, at any price.”

Or, if these action intellectuals look inward, it’s to the politics of reaction and counterrevolution. Thus, in 1848, Tocqueville was among the leading voices calling for the full suspension of civil liberties, welcoming talk of a “dictatorship” in order to preserve “the alienable right of Society to protect itself.” Whence the exhilaration? Whence the passion with which he defended a polity he had spent the better part of two decades denouncing? In his memoir of the Revolution of 1848, he offered an answer:

Let me say, then, that when I came to search carefully into the depths of my own heart, I discovered, with some surprise, a certain sense of relief, a sort of gladness mingled with all the griefs and fears to which the Revolution had given rise. I suffered from this terrible event for my country, but clearly not for myself; on the contrary, I seemed to breathe more freely than before the catastrophe. I had always felt myself stifled in the atmosphere of the parliamentary world which had just been destroyed: I had had found it full of disappointments, both where others and where I myself was concerned.

Defending liberalism against radicalism, Tocqueville was given the chance to use illiberal means for liberal ends, and it’s not entirely clear whether it was the means or the ends that most stirred him.

There was no field left for uncertainty of mind: on this side lay the salvation of the country; on that, its destruction. There was no longer any mistake possible as to the road to follow; we were to walk in broad daylight, supported and encouraged by the crowd. The road seemed dangerous, it is true, but my is so constructed that it is less afraid of danger than of doubt.

(Recall the words of Christopher Hitchens after 9/11: “I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy–theocratic barbarism–in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”)

Perhaps we have less to worry from Obama’s boredom. After all, he’s a writer and a politician who embraces—luxuriates in—moderation, skepticism, irony, and doubt. At least publicly.

Then again, so was Tocqueville.

Update (11 pm)

So it turns that that Obama quote, with which I led off my post, is not in fact a direct quote from Obama, but is instead a paraphrase, by one of Obama’s aides, of something Obama said. Slate‘s David Weigel has the whole story.


  1. Stephen Zielinski June 17, 2014 at 10:16 am | #


    On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy — theocratic barbarism — in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”

    The fool should have looked in the mirror if he had wanted to see something which scared him senseless. That something: A blustering neocon seeking power or to influence power in a vainglorious quest to shed blood.

    Now, if Obama authentically wanted a big project, one commensurate with his massive ego, he would immediately begin the charge for implementing a sustainable form of life for everyone on the planet. But he would not take up that task. It does not pay well, and might get him assassinated.

  2. s. wallerstein June 17, 2014 at 10:18 am | #

    From personal experience I can testify that day to day politics is boring, at least for those of us more comfortable with “big” ideas than with negotiating and above all, with sitting through long, long meetings where rather than a debate of ideas, one often witnesses the clash of egos with verborrea.

    I suppose that some long to escape from the tediousness of everyday politics into warmongering, as Hitchens did, but then again, it is very possible to long to escape from that tediousness into philosophy or poetry or the joy of a good conversation with friends.

    • William Neil June 17, 2014 at 11:02 am | #

      Thanks Corey; this post has so many interesting strands, I hardly know where to begin, or which one to follow.

      I began my own “legislative career” as an environmental advocate by being thrown right into the fire in New Jersey, an attempt to win a Coastal Commission by Governor Tom Kean in 1988-1989. It was his bill and initiative, not ours. It never even cleared its main committee hearing, and it had no support among Jersey Shore power brokers: elected officials and of course, the building and real estate industry and other economic interest. Looking back with decades worth of perspective, I wonder now whether it wasn’t a diversion, meant to divide the environmental “community” between a broader state plan with regulatory teeth, that Gov. Kean did not want, or this near suicide mission that I was leading the charge for. Who knows, I was not close enough to those who hatched the idea in the first place. Personally, it was exciting, but very frustrating. At one key committee hearing, I had to sit next to my boss, the late Dery Bennett of the American Littoral Society, as a Democratic Senate leader, Dan Dalton, read us the “interfering with private property rights” riot act; Dalton was so angry and so visceral in his attack on the bill that a professional legislative staffer had to come over to me afterwards and apologize, told me not to take it personally: thanks. Anyone who saw Rep. Darrell Issa’s attack on a reporter… “the how dare you” incident” from a year ago or so, can experience the same thrill without paying the price.

      I think there is one contemporary book which spans two of the main threads of this post, though, the legislature as slow, plodding and boring most of the time, and the legislature as the central feature in democracy which catches fire in times of national emergency: the work is Ira Katznelson’s “Fear Itslef: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.” It’s a long book, longer than Piketty’s, and it has won critical acclaim by putting the national legislature at the center of the New Deal, rather than the usual treatment which places FDR and his presidency there. It also places the American democratic South front and center, as the region which held the veto power and limits of what the New Deal could or could not reach. Katznelson is aware that he is writing the pre-history of our times, when conservative Southern Democrats first saw the possibility of uniting with Republicans to stop federal initiatives in labor/economic and racial matters. The later days of the New Deal, post 1937, foreshadow today’s gridlock in Washington, and show its ideological roots.

      I have made this gridlock one of the central themes of my own writings, and you can find the details from my latest essay here at Karen Garcia’s Sardonicky BlogSpot…http://kmgarcia2000.blogspot.com/2014/06/from-front-lines-of-class-war-continued.html

      The boring gridlock of Washington DC today is having a deep, deep effect upon the American left as well. The central dilemma is that the current white Republican south (along with the ideologically similar SouthWest…where George Wallace meets Barry Goldwater) looks like it has veto power over any new New Deal formulations – even as the Democratic Party has no taste for such a venture itself. The defeat of Eric Cantor by someone further to the Right is further proof of future ideological gridlock, and the whole Cliven Bundy affair in Utak – still unresolved because of a lack of federal enforcement action, reminds us of…carries us back to the tensions of the 1850’s…as do Bundy’s own musings on black people and slavery.

      But on the left, the gridlock is fueling a significant turn towards decentralization, which is in turn reinforced by the environmental left’s long-standing inclination towards “smaller is beautiful.” Add to this the many probing critiques of the breakdown in democracy, its capture by Sheldon Wolin’s “corporate state”…and at times it seems to me that the left is the ideological side which wants to secede from the Union, who sees no future in proceedings in the national legislature. Understandable, but I offer a dissent.

      Enough for this posting. The elaboration is in my essay “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Economic ‘Justice’ in Annapolis, Part II,’ which obviously isn’t just about Annapolis, MD.

      And thanks for broaching the themes, Corey.

      • William Neil June 17, 2014 at 3:31 pm | #

        Just to note, before someone else does: the Cliven Bundy episode unfolded in Nevada, not Utah.

  3. Roquentin June 17, 2014 at 10:59 am | #

    Don Quixote might be the definitive text of Western Civilization. The tale of buffoonery in the name of heroism, tilting at windmills, and the delusional nature of chivalry is as relevant now as it was in the Renaissance. It gets less play in the US than it deserves because it was composed in Spanish as opposed to English, but I’d trade every play Shakespeare ever wrote for it.

    Also, I’d have to go digging for it, but Zizek had this speech somewhere about how the drive to do what’s morally right is supplemented by a little obscenity. This was the nature of the superego, and the bargain being made….you’ll get your perverse desires in the name of the greater good or something to that effect. There’s another example of it in Interrogating the Real where he talks about a “Point de Capiton” of Lacanian theory, the “quilting point” which fastens down one’s reality and can turn things into their opposites. It’s this way of turning what was once strictly forbidden into the very method through which the law is upheld.

    • BillR June 17, 2014 at 12:40 pm | #

      An interesting comment:

      Zizek has a -target audience- and he knows what to feed them. It’s all posturing. The guy did an ad for Abercrombie and Fitch, for chrissakes!

      • Roquentin June 17, 2014 at 9:41 pm | #

        Plenty of people have it in for Zizek. I’m not one of them. Not only that, if it comes down to Chomsky vs Zizek I’d take Zizek any day of the week. Chomsky always has and always will annoy me, even when I agree with him. He’s spent too long up at MIT and his contempt for the humanities shows through. As if Chomsky wasn’t posturing as well…..Chomsky is the king of pious grandstanding.

        At this point, I think a lot of people are just mad that people are actually paying attention to him. God forbid you entertain people as you make a point or crack a few jokes.

  4. Thornton Hall June 17, 2014 at 6:36 pm | #

    Sometimes you hear “the value of diversity” and think, “what a bunch of argle bargle.”

    But then you look at Obama and compare him to white aristocrats in love with the excitement of violence and you think, “Thank god, for the first time in the history of the world, the head of a powerful empire identifies with Trayvon Martin and not George Zimmerman.”

  5. rj June 17, 2014 at 8:26 pm | #

    Well, yes, politics is a grind. Your post puts me in mind of the quote about Roosevelt: “second class intellect, first class temperament.” A first class intellect is likely to get bored. I am also reminded of your Buckley quote in The Reactionary Mind — all the free market pro-capitalist stuff got boring to him too. Like the sex act. I learned a bunch of good stuff from The Reactionary Mind — in particular, that playing small ball to ameliorate the problems in the world is simply not Conservative. Not a hint of the sublime — not when there is a holocaust against the unborn that must be stopped or a jihadist horde to be defeated. At least Obama has a pretty decent temperament and tends to hang in there. Liberalism is actually in the end very, very boring. Which I think is a huge point in its favor.

  6. William Neil June 17, 2014 at 10:25 pm | #

    I think we are all being too easy on Obama, and too passive about the meaning of the gridlock in Washington which is both tactical and ideological. We’re grateful he hasn’t taken out his frustration in a foreign policy venture? Yet he’s never really given a fighting domestic speech, to indicate the level of economic suffering, now written in Piketty’s book, and the meaning for democracy as we’ve known it. Like it would be bad form, and it would also require a sense of self measurement for himself and the Democratic Party, since they’ve hardly been trying to whip the country into a different mood in the way Truman did in the 1948 whistle stop campaign…the last pitch for the New Deal. Obama does not seem to have a sense of the national tragedy that is unfolding…no sense that this might be the 1850’s, updated for our time…or contain a whiff of Weimar….by this point Andrew Jackson might have challenged any number of Right wing Republicans to a personal duel…yet how can we expect Obama to dramatize the stakes for the yet to be held Congressional elections of 2014 if he has no passion over what hasn’t taken place in the wake of the great financial crisis. You get a sense of that in eight part series currently running on the Real News network’s interviews with Rob Johnson, Soros lieutenant who helped break the bank of England via currency speculation…and now is searching, again at Soros bequest, for a new economic paradigm. The man is a social democrat, someone from the higher economic circles who might have well served FDR as Filene or Kaiser had done…or maybe played the role of Joe Kennedy at the SEC…my point though, is that he speaks with a real deliberate sense of the depth of the tragedy that has unfolded economically and for democracy. While we have grown use to excepting the fact that Obama is incapable of real public anger channeled in a speech, no matter how high the stakes…or appropriate the circumstances….as in 2014…at least we could expect the conveyance in Johnsons tragic and somber tones, of what has been lost and is still at stake…Johnson doesn’t use the word Revolution, but he seems to almost have said it and caught himself, and indicates there is no guarantee the coming turmoil, even if started by the left, would be finished by the left, which I think is an accurate sense at this point. But he conveys a strong sense that something very powerful and perhaps very traumatic, is just around the corner.

    Let me be clear about what I would have hoped for in another President, given the stakes, and the state of the country, and the meaning of the “stalemate.” I would expect the executive equivalent of Chris Hedges’ speech “The Fate of Complex Societies” tempered of course by the office, the party and a few other boundaries. At least the ability to focus the anger at the Right for all the sufferings their stalemate has inflicted on the bottom 60%…but he is incapable of that, he’s spent just too much time amidst the upper 10%, and the party he represents is too close to the corporate state, is partner in it, so that he would have to make a significant and unforgiveable “departure” from the world of the Clintons, gone and hoped for… I would say the same to Richard Trumka at the AFL-CIO: when are you going to let loose, and break those party ties which have delivered you nothing over the last 14 years of Democratic Presidents; how bad does it have to get before labor, you or someone else gives an edgy Hedges type speech.

    Boredom? Bullshit. It reflects a real emptiness and lack of recognition, and lack of empathy. I don’t want to be too polite here.

    • Glenn June 17, 2014 at 11:20 pm | #

      What can one really expect from elections where we vote for marketing campaigns, not persons.

      From Ad Age: “This year Barack Obama won with a pretty substantial 36% of the vote, beating out the two runners-up Apple and Zappos.com. Nike, Coors and Sen. John McCain filled out the bottom of the vote.”

      Obama could be now blasting Bush Republicans, if there were an opposition party, for his lied-into war in Iraq, the one Obama said he would have voted against if he were in Congress at the time; but for party reasons, that being Hilary would become collateral damage based on her pro-war vote, the Democrats can’t even point out these inconvenient truths about the 2003 Iraq invasion.

  7. tony June 17, 2014 at 11:03 pm | #

    Since you make a point of being vigilant about such things, that appears to be a fake quote from Obama. Its origin is examined here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2014/06/17/first_there_is_a_quote_then_there_is_no_quote_then_there_is.html

    • Corey Robin June 17, 2014 at 11:06 pm | #

      Ah, many thanks. Someone else had raised this as a possibility in an email to me but didn’t have any evidence either way. Will post an update.

  8. jonnybutter June 17, 2014 at 11:16 pm | #

    I think we do have less to fear *in this respect* from Obama. I think politics in the age of Obama is not just boring, but particularly and dreadfully boring – even humiliatingly boring sometimes. Nothing happens. I would call it Grunting Quietism. It’s akin to the entire political apparatus taking 9 months to aim a gigantic gun at its own face, but when they pull the trigger they screw even THAT up and sort of miss, but not entirely. It’s repellant and boring – bacteria-level intelligence – absolutely by design, so it’s bound to be worse than the inherent boringness of democratic politics.

    The boring gridlock of Washington DC today is having a deep, deep effect upon the American left as well.

    Franco is still dead but he lives, too. Lack of political accountability is already a big problem in the American system, and the deliberate stultification of politics makes that worse I’d say.

    But absolutely beware bored ‘action’ intellectuals generally. Their ennui is very very expensive

  9. Jeremy June 17, 2014 at 11:24 pm | #

    I’m a perpetual “look on the bright side” type when it comes to Obama, so I’ll point out that if him being bored is the reason he’s just issuing executive orders on carbon emissions and non-discrimination for federal contractors instead of trying to negotiate a “grand bargain,” I’ll take it. There’s a million things worth doing in this country, but all the big ones require (probably large) Democratic majorities in Congress. So, I’ll just cautiously hope that he’ll focus on the smaller things he can do on his own to secure his legacy. The idea of him seeking “exhilaration” in the way Hitchens did is just too depressing for me to contemplate.

    • jonnybutter June 18, 2014 at 11:21 am | #

      “grand bargain,”

      thank god he *couldn’t* do that grand bargain!

      • Roquentin June 18, 2014 at 12:29 pm | #

        The most surprising thing about the Obama presidency is how little difference it has made. I think part of the reason the fight between Republican and Democrat is so fierce is because they’re desperate to make it seem like they aren’t alike. What is the term, the “narcissism of small differences” or something like that. If anything it’s exposed the phobia reactionary white America has of a black president (or a woman or anyone else for that matter) as a total farce. There’s very little to fear. Things will continue on as they have before with few noticeable changes. If anything Obama is just a watered down version of Bush. Yeah, I voted for him twice because even small differences matter, but let’s not bullshit each other about what’s going on.

        I have the same laugh for the feminist lean-in in corporate America. It matters not if the structure is run by a woman or not. I couldn’t care less. Not that I oppose the idea, it’s that a woman (as opposed to man) who makes 250 times what I do deciding my destiny is in no way a threat. It’s a point of indifference. In fact, I find it a little ridiculous that people will accept far worse things from someone who they perceive to be from a similar ethnic background than they ever would out of an outsider.

  10. William Neil June 18, 2014 at 12:37 pm | #

    Just to clear up any potential misperceptions about Obama himself on my part, by temperament and ideology – he is firmly in the neoliberal mainstream – he is not suited to the difficult task I would ideally like to assign to him in the present circumstance. Which is not to call for more direct head-butting against what I have termed “The Wall,” the stalemate, the gridlock in Congress, but to work on the politics of ideas, on long term “groundswell” building by advancing a progressive vision.

    So let’s set Obama himself aside and ask for historical instances. One that comes to mind immediately is FDR’s failed purge of conservative Southern Democrats in the 1938 elections, including Millard Tydings in Maryland. It was too late and lacked a grassroots strategy; the attempting packing of the Supreme Court had given opponents an opening to centrists upon which to oppose the electoral “purge.” But this wasn’t the main example I had in mind. Rather, it was FDR’s call for a “Second Bill of Rights” in his 1944 State of the Union Address, with the first right being named the one to a decent job. Well before our current painful circumstances, no less than Cass Sunstein himself wrote a book, studiously ignored, entitled “The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It more Than Ever.” (2004) A pretty provocative title and in part, content, for someone like Sunstein, who role in real life in the Obama Administration was not to play the role of Harry Hopkins or Frances Perkins, but to be the anti-regulatory czar. While the left can learn a lot from the content of Sunstein’s book, the methodology of achieving it undermines the goals – he places markets at the center of any reform policy – and has got lots of explaining to do to show why the Right’s obsession with those same markets (and the Clinton’s too) did not logically lead us to where we are now. Sunstein would undoubtedly answer “Markets Rightly Understood.” My answer to him would be to go and read Karl Polanyi.

    But I digress. My point is this: FDR faced gridlock by 1938; the embryonic coalition between Southern democrats and Republicans had formed enough to cut the New Deal off, the war had taken over, yet FDR was going to use these circumstances to raise the hopes and vision of the nation for its future domestic direction.

    That option is always available to stalemated Presidents and Governors (food for New Yorkers: your governor and the struggle The Working Families Party has had with him, and the “agreement). And while Ira Katznelsson rightly calls our attention in a hoped for democracy back to its central democratic institutions (ideally now), the national legislature, real politics also takes places outside the electoral arena in the struggle over ideas and visions. This the Right is very good at, and the Democrats very lousy. As the left well knows. But constructive work outside the electoral arena can have very powerful feedback effects. William Lloyd Garrison’s career is a great example, and the abolitionists more generally, and Henry Mayer’s magisterial biography of Garrison, “All on Fire,” calls him arguably the most successful reformer in American history. And isn’t that title an interesting contrast with the shadings of Corey’s posting here about Obama.

    There is a lot in motion on the left right now, and I think it needs to have a full debate about the different directions, recapturing the commanding heights of national and congressional offices, vs. slow quiet work to radically transform the nature of our economic institutions. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, except that now the tensions are unfolding under circumstances that make the first direction seem far too futile and frustrating, the other less painful, but of such a long term haul that I have a hard time imagining it not being swamped by crises, most likely economic ones. And a pain level among the bottom 50% that cannot wait 30 years. And that obvious national trait, national traits not being easy to ditch, whatever ones ideological persuasion – the American people are not a patient people.

    I think there is a lot of truth in what Rob Johnson says in that 7th of his interviews at Real News Network: the Republican Right saw the tactical and ideological necessity to bury the old New Deal before the Democrats could use its historical memory and experimentation as the take-off point for a new one. Amity Shlaes “The Forgotten Man” (2007) performed that work, just in case you have “forgotten.” She cited William Graham Sumner as the author of the essay of that title, reminded us that FDR’s folks took it for their own use, but she forgot to tell readers that WG Sumner also was the nation’s leading Social Darwinist.

    Another thing that Shlaes attempted to bury was the history of rural electrification. As in the usual Right wing main plot line, it was big bad government that blocked a striving private sector utility industry from bringing farmers in the dark their lights – and labor saving appliances. Robert Caro demolished Shlaes whole argument in one of his early LBJ biographical volumes, but no one noticed; the New Deal was not worth fighting over. Except that today, Gar Alperovitz is busy pushing the model of rural electric co-operatives…I think he overestimates the ideological content of the co-operatives that have survived, and that is part of the debate the left should be having. I think the President even may have had an “event” at a rural electric co-operative, but it didn’t seem to shed much light, probably because he doesn’t generate sufficient current.

  11. GerardO June 19, 2014 at 2:20 am | #

    This post brings to mind Schopenhauer’s views on the restlessness of the Will.

  12. Maybe someone could recommend Tetris?

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