President Obama’s tenure in the White House has been plagued by an insularity that is unusual for a world leader. He largely eschews the glad-handing and ego stroking that are part and parcel of Oval Office dealmaking; and he refuses, for better, but often worse, the arm-twisting necessary to impose his will.
Jonathan Alter, who wrote a biography of Obama’s first year in office, described the president’s insularity as a “winning smile obscured a layer of self-protective ice.” And while many voters, who were tired of “politics as usual,” were glad of the change, that layer of ice put a deep freeze on relations with many members of Congress, including those in his own party.
“When you don’t build those personal relationships, it’s pretty easy for a person to say, ‘well, let me talk about it,’ you know, and not really make that extra effort,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said on CNN’s State of the Union.
It’s a sentiment that many on the party’s left wing agree with.
“I think one of the problems with the White House is that it’s been too set apart. It’s been too Chicago-centric, and it needs to get out,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told The Hill. “Clinton didn’t just talk to four leaders, he picked up the phone and he kind of said, ‘I really need your vote on this.’”
There are several competing views on why President Obama refuses to establish the relationships needed to successfully govern in Washington. Republicans chalk it up to petty partisanship. Despite all his promises to “move beyond the bitterness” and “end the political strategy that’s been all about division and instead make it about addition” the president has widened the partisan divide. Democrats have their own theories; namely, that he opts to exist above the fray in some idealized version of Washington. As a frustrated Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times:
President Obama thinks he can use emotion to bring pressure on Congress. But that’s not how adults with power respond to things. He chooses not to get down in the weeds and pretend he values the stroking and other little things that matter to lawmakers. . .
Obama hates selling. He thinks people should just accept the right thing to do. But as Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, noted, senators have their own tough selling job to do back home. “In the end you can really believe in something,” he told The Times’s Jennifer Steinhauer, “but you have to go sell it.”
The truth is likely somewhere in between. He hates the idea of selling, of glad-handing, of schmoozing, especially to Republicans, because he believes himself to be just too good for that. He also hates getting in the weeds on issues, because it’s the vision not the details that excite him.
That tendency has gotten him into trouble on several occasion. It’s why the president could go five years without knowing his spies were bugging the phones of world leaders. Or why he had no idea that HealthCare.gov, the chief product of his signature piece of legislation, was going to have a disastrous rollout. Or why the New York Times described Obama as appearing “impatient and disengaged while listening to the debate [over arming Syrian rebels], sometimes scrolling through messages on his Blackberry or slouching and chewing gum.”
That aloofness and egoism is fostered by the yes-men he surrounds himself with.
“He knows exactly how smart he is . . . He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows he has the ability – the extraordinary, uncanny ability – to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never been challenged intellectually,” long-time aide Valerie Jarrett told David Remnick. “He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”
The problem is that ordinary people vote. Ordinary people serve in Congress. And ordinary people lead other nations.
It’s that last group that is now causing President Obama the most trouble. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad crossed the metaphorical “red line,” Russia’s Vladimir Putin continues to test boundaries in Ukraine, and the U.S. continues to suffer setbacks in negotiations with Japan, Israel and China. Part of the problem has been Obama’s inclination to say more and do less, hoping against hope that his opponents will simply come to their senses with a good talking-to. That style has exasperated some of his biggest fans.
“And that’s what’s frustrating to me sometimes about Obama is that the world seems to disappoint him,” Obama biographer David Remnick said on MSNBC.
Ironically, it’s that character flaw, that makes his presidency so disappointing.