Obama Loses His "Cool"

With his glib dismissal of pot legalization, the president looks less like the man, and more like The Man.


When the generation of Americans under the age of 30 gets around to realizing that this handsome young president might not be nearly as cool as they'd hoped, it won't be hard to affix a date on when the milk began to sour. It was March 26, 2009, when Barack Obama conducted a live town hall press conference featuring questions submitted online.

Near the beginning of this hip and mildly groundbreaking interaction, the president said this: "We took votes about which questions were gonna be asked.…Three point five million people voted. I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high, uh, and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve, uh, the economy and job creation. And, uh (chuckles), uh, I don't know what this says about the online audience (laughs), but I just want—I don't want people to think that—this was a fairly popular question; we want to make sure that it was answered. Uh, the answer is, no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy."

The live audience laughed and applauded. The kids online? Not so much.

"Way to discredit a lot of the 'online audience' who got you elected, Mr. President," wrote one commenter on the social news-aggregating website Digg, where Obama's dismissal was heavily criticized. "Enjoy your approval rating now, Mr. President, I think you just lost a bunch of help," wrote another. A third Diggster treated legalization with a seriousness (if not grammaticalness) that Obama failed to muster: "To me this is justa common sense issue, legalize Marijuana, decriminalize drug use, thereby crippling drug lords, creating a safe and in the open means to distribute cannabis, give the economy a shot in the arm, and propel snack food sales through the roof. I know the man has a lot on his plate, but seriously this is not justa pot head issue. and it ain't cute that folks are rotting in prisons for cultivating and smoking a ***** plant."

No, it ain't cute at all.

Scratch a young Obama voter and you won't necessarily find someone who likes bailouts or cares about financial market regulations one way or another. Instead you're likely to hear about how the awful Republicans wage wars, bait gays and racial minorities, and basically act like a bunch of mean old white men. Party membership and voting are frequently more about group identity than philosophical orientation about the proper role of government. (For a wonderful exploration of the dissonances this can create, see Associate Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward's "Dangerous Toys, Strange Bedfellows," page 42.) There's little doubt about the broad mores of Generation Obama: pro-choice, pro-gay, and pro-legalization. Obama's got the first one covered, but his youngest supporters are finding out quickly that on the latter two the president is not offering substantive "change" from the last few administrations.

Freedom works in chaotic, unpredictable ways. Sometimes you can go for decades without an inch of progress; and then, the next thing you know, the whole architecture of oppression gets swept away within a matter of days. At a recent screening in Washington, D.C., for the new Velvet Revolution documentary The Power of the Powerless, an American activist type asked the former Czech student leader Šimon Pánek how much behind-the-scenes logistical groundwork and drawn-out planning his fellow revolutionaries engaged in before the 10 days in November 1989 that overthrew the Communist Party. Pánek laughed. "Oh, no," he said. "It all happened so fast, you cannot plan for such a thing."

Marijuana legalization isn't happening remotely that fast, but there are some preliminary indicators that something new and hopeful is stirring within the populace in 2009. It started in late January, when photos surfaced of record-shattering Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps smoking a bong at a party. As a nation prepared for the usual round of hypocritical and self-righteous denunciations, something stranger happened: nothing. The country's sports pages, normally not known for their permissive attitudes about what humans put in their bodies, greeted the news of a 23-year-old acting like a 23-year-old with a collective shrug.

Ostensibly conservative corporate America, at least in the form of Phelps' many sponsors, almost unanimously stood by their man. The one company that did not, cereal-maker Kellogg Co., found itself the target of a boycott, and its spokespeople spent the month of February loudly (and not very convincingly) claiming that the two sides' parting of the ways was a simple matter of a contract expiring. "Our marijuana laws have been ludicrous for as long as we've been alive," the conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in the Washington Post. "The problem isn't Phelps, who is, in fact, an adult. The problem is our laws—and our lies."

Aside from the shattered lives of those caught either in the drug war or in the dangerous black market that prohibition produces, it is the lies that make marijuana criminalization so infuriating. For decades we have allowed billions of our tax dollars to be spent on propaganda telling us, falsely, that pot is "dangerous," that winners don't do drugs, and that recreational drug users finance terrorism. Barack Obama is the living refutation of all of that: Not only did he inhale, but he freely admitted that "that was the point." Yet countless federal agencies still require either marijuana-free pasts or (more likely) skilled lying about it. This at a time when more than half of Americans born after World War II have tried pot at least once.

Forcing people to lie, even a little bit, is one of the single most appalling and corrosive things a government can do. That's the bad news. The good news is that this model is ultimately unsustainable, for the simple reason that people would rather tell the truth. At Andrew Sullivan's blog in March and April, readers sent in dozens of testimonials explaining that they are perfectly upstanding members of society yet have broken the nation's idiotic marijuana laws multiple times in the past and are now tentatively "coming out of the closet" about it. Though it's another sign that the architecture of lies is finally showing the first signs of collapse, the act is nonetheless kind of pathetic. What kind of fearful, groveling supplicants have we become after these four decades of abuse?

That's why Obama's pot answer, and the immediately hostile reaction to it by his core fan base, was so interesting. The president has done some good things in office, most notably giving word to the Drug Enforcement Administration that it is no longer to conduct raids on medical marijuana clubs in states they are legal. Though there still have been a couple of raids during the transition period, the new policy presents a marked change from the past. But considering that that's about as far as Obama appears willing to go, events and public sentiment may soon overtake him.

In moments of liberation, leaders who seemed so progressive during times of stagnation suddenly appear archaic, even obstructionist. Mikhail Gorbachev was far more liberal than the communist leaders of East Germany and several other Soviet satellites, yet the revolutionaries there who rammed through the opening he helped create nonetheless tended to hate his guts. He was, after all, still an authoritarian Communist. By demonstrating that some winners do do drugs, and by allowing cannabis clubs to show the world that pot buyers and sellers are as American as apple pie, Obama is perhaps unwittingly helping to unleash a long-overdue correction in the way America lies to itself. Taking advantage of that window of opportunity might not be a good strategy for growing the economy, but it's an excellent way to begin regrowing our spines.

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is the editor in chief of reason.