In early May of 2000, President Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office discussing a bill to help Colombia in its fight against drugs.
"If this bill passes," Clinton said, "I want to go to Colombia." Arturo Valenzuela, his senior director for Latin America, responded, "Sir, if you go to Colombia, you could take a side trip to the Amazon." Clinton thought for a moment and said: "I'd love to go to the Amazon. I've never seen piranhas in their natural habitat."
We all had a good laugh — and Clinton could afford to laugh. He was in his last year in the White House, and he had learned to manage the piranhas. The more extreme the House Republicans became the higher Clinton's approval numbers rose, which helped the president live with the piranhas and even work with them.
Four years from now, will Barack Obama be in the Oval Office and able to laugh about the piranhas?
When I first began to think Obama would make a good president, I was reading "The Audacity of Hope" on a plane ride back from a business trip. I was awestruck by passages on the ambition and the fear of humiliation that drive the lives of office seekers. I thought, "My gosh, someone with this self-awareness and capacity for self-criticism would make a great president." My friend and travel partner — a writer of State of the Union addresses and author of presidential histories — said, "It's more complicated than that."
I was taken with Obama's skill in exploring his own psychology, because I had spent seven years watching the national damage that came from a deficit in that skill on the part of President George W. Bush. But there is more to being a wise leader than understanding one's own motives. You also have to understand the motives of others.
Obama's start in Washington was a little reminiscent of the first combat experience of Nikolai Rostov, the character in Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" who sees French troops running toward him and thinks: "Who are they? Why are they running? Can they be coming at me? And why? To kill me? Me whom everyone is so fond of?"
The book continues: "He remembered his mother's love for him, and his family's, and his friends, and the enemy's intention to kill him seemed impossible. ... For more than 10 seconds he stood not moving from the spot or realizing the situation."
For the first two years, it seemed, the president was not "realizing the situation." Even at the close of the 111th Congress, when both chambers were still in Democratic hands, Obama failed to insist on a debt ceiling increase as part of the deal to extend the Bush tax cuts — giving House Republicans an opportunity to create havoc by risking default the following summer.
As the default nightmare began to unfold in late June, the president said: "Call me naive, but my expectation is that leaders are going to lead. ... My expectation is that they'll do the responsible thing."
I suspect that the hysterical Republican tantrum that followed helped the president realize the situation — as did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's famous comment: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
Self-knowledge makes life worth living, but knowledge of others can make life last longer. The president sees that now and is capitalizing on it — as we saw in the payroll tax fight, when he gladly let House Republicans become victims of their own extremism.
This is a welcome shift — a tougher, savvier Obama. To accelerate this trend, I suggest the president study the mindset not of Bill Clinton, but of a man much less admired among Democrats, a man who became a powerful force in Washington through his obsessive habit of imputing dark motives to others and then attacking them (pre-emptively), a man who never has said the words "call me naive."
If Obama buys the Jungian idea that an integrated personality embraces its opposites, he might want to balance out his trusting nature by getting closer to his inner Cheney. Cheney believed that people were out to get him even when they weren't, whereas Obama believes that people are not out to get him even when they are. A good balance. That's why in this campaign, I'm supporting change we can believe in: Obama-Cheney 2012.
Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.