Being president is hard, and often downright unpleasant, particularly when there are scandals, legitimate or otherwise, swirling about and distracting your attention from what you'd like to be accomplishing. I'm sure it's particularly frustrating when the opposition party is so intransigent that negotiating with them is pointless. Right now Barack Obama's presidency is at something of a low point, but nevertheless, it was a bit surprising to see this, from a New York Times story this morning: "Yet Mr. Obama also expresses exasperation. In private, he has talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,' a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty's character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama's desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him."
This is not, it should be noted, a belief on the president's part that if he just gave it to 'em straight, he could transform American politics with the power of honest words. That view is alarmingly persistent among certain members of the punditry, and Obama is plainly contemptuous of it. He understand the constraints he's under, how the institutions of Washington conspire to make change difficult, and where the limits on presidential power lie.
However, if he really wanted to "go Bulworth," there isn't anything stopping him. What does he have to lose?
Not much, but I'm guessing he doesn't think there's anything to gain either, except whatever therapeutic value it would have, in a primal scream sort of way. After all, Obama is nothing if not controlled, and one does wonder if he doesn't let his frustrations out by going down to the White House gym and pounding on the heavy bag for an hour every night, sweat pouring off him, his teeth clenched together and a fire in his eyes.
For those of you who missed Bulworth when it came out in 1998, in the film a senator goes crazy and starts speaking all kinds of unpleasant truths to people, telling voters he hasn't paid attention to them because they didn't give him enough campaign contributions, and eventually rapping about corporations' hold on the political process. It was kind of a mediocre film, but as I've written before,11In that post, I included The Candidate, with Robert Redford, as one of the films that includes this theme, but it turns out that in recalling it from having seen it a couple of decades before in a high school film class, I had gotten the story backwards; as Jonathan Bernstein reminded me, The Candidate actually shows how the lead character loses his soul by becoming a mindless spewer of talking points. this is a plot line that pops up frequently in films and television shows about candidates. Here, for instance, is a scene from another mediocre film, The Adjustment Bureau, in which Matt Damon, after suffering an electoral loss, turns his back on the artifice of politics and tells it like it is:
In these movies, the brutal honesty always works. The politician finds new success, vaults upward in public esteem, even becomes president. So why doesn't this happen in real life? Because we don't want it to. We, the voters. If we paid more attention, understood the issues better, and were less susceptible to the manipulations of political consultants, then every politician would be Bulworth. If "going Bulworth" worked, they'd be doing it all the time.