Wednesday, November 18, 2015

President Obama and Bill Simmons: The GQ Interview

There's the president of the United States, and then there’s the person who happens to be the President of the United States.

Bill Clinton served for eight years, but we were always more intrigued by Bill Clinton the Person—a magnetic charmer once described by Chris Rock as “a cool guy, like the president of a record company.” Clinton’s charisma defined his presidency, for better and for worse. He couldn’t always harness it. He couldn’t stop trying to win everyone over, whether it was a 60 Minutes correspondent, 500 powerful donors in a crowded banquet hall, or a fetching woman on a rope line.

If Clinton acted like someone who ran Capitol Records, Obama—both the person and the president—carries himself like Roger Federer, a merciless competitor who keeps coming and coming, only there’s a serenity about him that disarms just about everyone. At one point during the hour I spent interviewing him at the White House this fall, he casually compared himself to Aaron Rodgers, and he wasn’t bragging. Obama identified with Rodgers’s ability to keep his focus downfield despite all the chaos happening in front of him. That’s Obama’s enduring quality, and (to borrow another sports term) this has been his “career year.”

Obama lives in America’s most famous museum and uses it to his advantage. You’re sitting there in some ancient tearoom waiting for him to show up, surrounded by portraits of former first ladies and framed maps from battles that America won over the centuries. Everyone is friendly but suspicious. Everyone talks in hushed tones. You feel like you’re intruding at all times. You’re just…waiting. Suddenly, ten anonymous security guards pop out of hallways and doorways that you didn’t know were there. The energy shifts. And then, there’s Obama—big smile, big handshake, some ball-busting comments to put everyone at ease. Within seconds of greeting me, he was poking fun at my shoes and teasing me for not writing anymore.

“It’s really aggravating not having you on Grantland,” he said, almost like I betrayed him. “I go to the site and there’s no Simmons. Come on, man, it’s not the same.”

It’s an alpha-male trick—put someone off-balance, flatter them and bust their chops at the same time. A few minutes later, he was grabbing control of the interview with measured responses, knowing that he didn’t have to perform without cameras or podcast equipment. And so he took his time. And it worked. I mean, how do you interrupt the most powerful man on earth? It felt like the way Federer repeatedly jumped Novak Djokovic’s second serve in the 2015 U.S. Open Final—a savvy trick to disrupt someone’s flow, a seemingly harmless way to gain an edge. It’s what the great competitors do.

In January, Obama will begin his eighth and final year on the job. It’s an era now. What has he learned about leadership? What was his biggest regret? Why did it seem like, in 2015, he finally started letting it fly, threw on his Beefsquatch costume and let everyone know “THIS IS ME NOW!” Gay marriage, health care, Charleston, the Iran deal… If you voted against him, 2015 was the year when his inner confidence bothered you more than ever. And if you voted for him, 2015 was definitely the year when you said, “That is the guy I voted for.” But what if Barack Obama has been that guy all along?

by Bill Simmons, GQ |  Read more: