If you’ve been reading the political news lately, you might be thinking that Barack Obama is like a high school senior who already has a job lined up after graduation, and is just going through the motions until his current responsibilities are over and done with. He’s getting lots of criticism for not doing many of the things that a president is supposed to do — not the things having to do with policy, but the proper speechmaking, massaging of egos, and image management.
Some liberals are upset that Obama hasn’t given a powerful speech about the events in Ferguson. Democrats in Congress are miffed that he doesn’t spend more time with them. And in today’s New York Times, there’s a front-page article about the troubling optics of Obama dealing with tragedies and crises, then heading out to the golf course:
He had just hung up the telephone with the devastated parents before heading in front of the cameras. Unusually emotional, President Obama declared himself “heartbroken” by the brutal murder of an American journalist, James Foley, and vowed to “be relentless” against Islamic radicals threatening to kill another American.
But as soon as the cameras went off, Mr. Obama headed to his favorite golf course on Martha’s Vineyard, where he is on vacation, seemingly able to put the savagery out of his mind. He spent the rest of the afternoon on the links even as a firestorm of criticism erupted over what many saw as a callous indifference to the slaughter he had just condemned.
The criticism in a case like this tends to be of the third-person variety: whoever’s doing the criticizing says, “I understand why substantively this doesn’t make any difference, but other people are going to look at it and be upset.” But I’m not sure who’s sincerely upset about it.
It isn’t that these accumulated critiques are inaccurate. In many ways it appears that he has indeed stopped bothering with a lot of the things that contemporary presidents spend their time worrying about. Barack Obama isn’t Bill Clinton — working a room, whether it’s full of donors or full of senators, isn’t his idea of a good time. So he’ll go to the fundraisers, because that’s still something with practical importance for his party. But he isn’t going to massage Congressional egos, because at this point it won’t make a bit of difference. He’s enjoyed almost perfect support on legislation from congressional Democrats (and almost perfect opposition from Republicans), and there isn’t going to be any major legislation in his last two years anyway, not with the GOP controlling one and possibly two houses of Congress.
In the same way, Obama could try to “win the morning” and be consumed with every up and down of the news cycle. But he plainly no longer cares. Playing golf might not make him look good, but he’s probably decided that it’s an important way for him to stay sane (as the Times article says, he has “perhaps the most stressful job on the planet”), and he’s willing to tolerate some bad press.
Back when he first ran for president, Obama and his team prided themselves on their ability to see beyond the fury of that day’s news cycle, avoid the distraction of whatever was in Politico that morning, and keep their focus on their long-term goals. That was a central part of the “No Drama Obama” ethos. What’s happening now is in some ways an extension of that perspective. It may be that Obama has decided that it’s no longer possible to affect how most Americans think about him — after nearly six years in office, there’s no clever press strategy that will revive his approval ratings. The only thing that will make a difference is results.
Take, for example, the Affordable Care Act. If you were Barack Obama, how would you look at it now? You’d probably say that on the public relations, it’s been somewhere between a disaster and a draw. “Obamacare” as a vaguely-understood idea is never going to be hugely popular. But we got millions of people health coverage, tens of millions more have security they never knew before, and nearly all the news about the law’s implementation has been good. You’d say that’s what matters in the end.
If it was you, at this point in your presidency, you’d probably start caring a lot less about the political things that hadn’t proven very meaningful or effective up until now. If you were planning on playing golf with Alonzo Mourning and somebody said, “Sir, it might not be a bad idea to invite Speaker Boehner along, just to try to maintain relations,” you’d probably say, “Yeah, no thanks.”
The press tends to criticize politicians for being consumed with the veneer of politics; no one comes in for more withering contempt than the politician who is insufficiently “authentic” and tries too hard to shape his image. But at the same time, we skewer the politician who doesn’t pay enough attention to that image.
If there’s one reason all this could matter, it’s because his approval rating will have an impact on the midterm elections this November. Every Democrat on the ballot would be happier if the leader of their party edged his approval rating up even a few points, and in tight races, even a small shift upwards could make a real difference. Obama might be sensitive to that concern. But if he is, he isn’t showing it.