The Vox interviewers, editor in chief Ezra Klein and foreign policy specialist Matthew Yglesias, ask lengthy background questions, such as how the United States has reached a point where businesses are doing well but workers aren’t sharing the prosperity. The president gives even longer answers, ranging widely as he explains his thinking on certain subjects.
On the company/worker issue, for instance, Mr. Obama starts with the rise of technology and demise of whole occupations (“travel agents, bank tellers, a lot of middle management”), brings in globalization and increased competition from the rest of the world, and ends with an overview of the decline in worker leverage due to shrinkage in labor unions and other issues.
“You combine all that stuff, and it’s put workers in a tougher position,” Obama tells Mr. Klein.
When Mr. Yglesias asks whether Obama is a foreign policy realist, as opposed to an idealist, the president launches into a brief discussion of the origins of these terms. He ends, perhaps unsurprisingly, by implying that his policies can’t be categorized in this manner and draw from both points of view.
“What I do think is accurate in describing my foreign policy is a strong belief that we don’t have military solutions to every problem in the 21st century,” Obama says.
Some other journalistic outlets were impressed by Vox’s “brainiac-nerd” approach to a presidential interview. (That is Obama’s description of the site’s audience.) The Guardian said it was perhaps Obama’s “most revealing interview as president.”
Some weren’t impressed. Right-leaning sites in particular groused at what they felt to be boosterish questions and answers heavy on administration spin. Founder Klein worked on Democrat Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003, and an early stop in his journalistic career was the left-leaning American Prospect.
“ 'Thought nerds were supposed to be smart’: Obama’s assessment of Vox invites fact checks” was the headline on the conservative site Twitchy’s piece on the Vox interview.
If nothing else, the interview shows anew the administration’s belief that effective communications requires proffering the president to a wide range of outlets. The Vox interview, for instance, occurred shortly after Obama gave post-State of the Union interviews to three unconventional bloggers, including comedian GloZell.
In our own view, there was at least one thing missing from the Vox pieces: hard news.
True, a few snippets made headlines. Obama said he thinks the Senate for the most part should abandon filibusters. He claimed that his first two years in office were as productive as any since President Lyndon Johnson. He came out in favor of a constitutional amendment limiting money in politics.
But the first point isn’t something a president has a say in. The second is ... questionable. The third isn’t going to happen.
Vox is an explanatory site, and its interviews are unsurprisingly explanatory. But on every subject raised there was a topical question that went unasked: Does the administration’s foreign policy approach require US troops in Syria? Did last Friday’s big jobs numbers make the administration feel better about income inequality? And so on.
No question, Vox got interesting stuff. But to us, most of the time Obama sounded like the guy who briefs the guy who makes the decisions, as opposed to the decisionmaker himself.