Obama’s Presidency: An Exercise in Box-Checking

President Obama was swept into office largely based on the promise that he would change the way that Washington worked. He would exist above partisanship in order to heal the fractured relationship between Democrats and Republicans and he would turn increasingly red and blue states into a purple utopia.

But he hasn’t done that. Indeed, he was never all that passionate about change. Rather, it was a governing style that suited his personality – that of an academic who loves to think up ideas, but disdains the personal interactions required to sell them or the grunt work to get them implemented. For policy wonks looking for answers to societal problems and historians attempting to discern Obama’s legacy this creates a real problem. As Michael Kazin writes for The New Republic:

But if Obama cares deeply about anything he has accomplished or intends to accomplish, he has made no serious or sustained attempt to let us know. Instead, he typically delivers a big speech or two about a subject—whether the ACA, economic inequality, or immigration reform—and then essentially stops talking about it, even when, as with the income gap, he has public opinion on his side. No topic seems to hold his interest very long, and so he bounces around without ever persuading the American public.

Of course, the president always has a myriad of problems to address and policies he would like to enact. The great ones choose which one or two matter most, to the country and to themselves, and then make sure Americans will have no doubt about why they have made that choice and what they intend to do about it.

Kazin labels Obama’s problem “Political ADD,” and in some respects he is right. One need look no further than the myriad pivots to the economy to understand that President Obama is easily distracted by the shiny policy topic dominating the day. But what if it’s bigger than that? What if he just lacks a motivating passion?

Many on the political left point to health care reform as the president’s driving force. But just because the bill (and its many travails) has come to define his term in office doesn’t mean it was planned that way. The fact that health care reform made it onto Obama’s campaign platform was more happenstance than anything else.

“We needed something to say,” one of Obama’s advisers told POLITICO. “I can’t tell you how little thought was given to that thought other than it sounded good. So they just kind of hatched it on their own. It just happened. It wasn’t like a deep strategic conversation.”

Obamacare was nothing more than an exercise in box-checking. The campaign team needed a speech for Obama to give to a left-leaning health care conference and what better way to garner support than to appear committed to the idea of universal health care? It was a twist of fate that has reverberated over the last six years and culminated in a botched rollout, due in no small part to presidential inattentiveness.

That nonchalant attitude is not limited to policy proposals. It’s also reflected in the detached relationships, or lack thereof, that he has with Congress, including with members of his own party. The New York Times reports:

But nearly six years into his term, with his popularity at the lowest of his presidency, Mr. Obama appears remarkably distant from his own party on Capitol Hill, with his long neglect of would-be allies catching up to him.

In interviews, nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers and senior congressional aides suggested that Mr. Obama’s approach has left him with few loyalists to effectively manage the issues erupting abroad and at home and could imperil his efforts to leave a legacy in his final stretch in office.

Grumbling by lawmakers about a president is nothing unusual. But what is striking now is the way prominent Democrats’ views of Mr. Obama’s shortcomings are spilling out into public, and how resigned many seem that the relationship will never improve.

“In order to work with people, you need to establish the relationship first before you ask for something,” Sen. Angus King told the Times.

“For him, eating his spinach is schmoozing with elected officials,” added Sen. Claire McCaskill.

While casual banter may not be the president’s idea of a good time, could Obama let something so trivial undermine his presidency? Again, the answer seems to be that President Obama hasn’t found a policy topic that captures his interest, something for which he would set aside his personal distaste for direct lobbying. He claims to have a “pen and a phone” and yet he seems loathe to use either, except to antagonize the opposition party.

And while that’s a useful trick to have, it’s not something that can support the weight of a presidency or a party.