Ezra Klein and NRO’s Josh Barro have criticized my analysis of President Obama’s reading list. Klein seems to think that I believe that presidents should never read fiction, and Barro seems surprised that someone would be “parsing the president’s summer reading list,” as if this were an unusual activity.
Both complaints strike me as somewhat naïve. Of course presidents can and should read fiction. They can read whatever they like. But they also need to recognize that analysts will look at presidential reading selections for what they say about the president and his state of thinking. With respect to Obama’s fiction-heavy list, for example, Reuters came out almost immediately and observed that “Obama, perhaps seeking a break from harsh reality after a tough summer battling the economy and Republicans in Congress, has picked a summer reading list that is long on fiction.” This analysis stemmed from the fact that, per Reuters again, Obama’s “choices ignored the weighty biographies of great Americans typically on a president’s reading list.”
The smart presidents recognize the reality of this scrutiny and take advantage of it. Clinton, for example, used to devour fiction, but he didn’t advertise the title of every mystery he read. I have also praised Obama in the past for the clever way he has used his reading to convey certain messages about his readiness and his ambitious agenda. (This is not a partisan endeavor: This weekend, I looked at the reading habits of the Republican presidential candidates to see what it said about them, for good and for ill.)
In some of his previous reading selections, Obama has shown an understanding that one of the facts of life for presidents is that people will interpret their actions, including leisure activities, as reflective of the their personality, state of mind, and policy preferences. Given Obama’s previous demonstrations that he understands this state of affairs, his 2011 summer reading list remains an odd one.