Sometimes you wonder if President Obama picked the wrong career. Increasingly, it seems he is not good at and doesn’t enjoy his chosen profession.
The Post’s piece by Scott Wilson on Obama (“The loner president”) puts some reporting meat on the view of many observers that Obama is aloof, solitary and uninterested in politics. He writes: “Beyond the economy, the wars and the polls, President Obama has a problem: people. This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors. His relationship with Democrats on Capitol Hill is frosty, to be generous. Personal lobbying on behalf of legislation? He prefers to leave that to Vice President Biden, an old-school political charmer.” His thesis is “Obama, in short, is a political loner who prefers policy over the people who make politics in this country work.”
I think this is only partially right. Certainly, Obama’s lack of attentiveness on everything from the scheduling of his speech to a joint session of Congress to coordination with the prime minister of Israel to his spats with the GOP leadership to his sniping at his own base is widely known. His news conferences are generally an exercise in woe-is-me blame-mongering. He chastises rather than cajoles political allies and vilifies an ever-growing list of enemies.
But his political failings aren’t attributable to his dogged interest in policy. It’s not like he is off ruminating about policy like a scholarly wonk who cares only about the arcane policy details. There is actually zero evidence of that. His policy initiatives have been subcontracted to the Democrats (the first stimulus and then ObamaCare). Unlike George W. Bush (stem-cell policy, immigration reform) or Bill Clinton, he has not produced any unique policy innovations or contributed to thoughtful dialogue on the major issues of the day. The details of legislation hold no lure for him. His budget speech in the spring was a rant against Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), not a discourse on the proper role of government in our lives.
If he is devoted to policy he’s a failing student. Everywhere one looks — economic revival, Middle East policy, etc. — there is disarray and disaster. So it’s not that Obama prefers policy to politics; rather, he stinks at both.
Moreover, he may be haughty and condescending toward critics and frustrated with his fellow citizens, but he isn’t indifferent to politics. Arguably, his administration is obsessed with it. The jobs bill is, his supporters concede, nothing more than a lame setup to battle against the do-nothing Republicans. His speeches are a serial exercise in blaming his predecessor and opponents on the debt, the absence of immigration reform, the poisonous political atmosphere and virtually ever other problem. He may lack people skills, but he is obsessed with partisanship.
In short, it’s obvious Obama is poor at politics. He appears to neither like nor respect the company of those beyond his circle of yes men and women. But he is equally bad at policy and at the essence of presidential politics — building consensus, persuading foes, winning goodwill and rising above partisan squabbles. Let’s face it: His sole talent always has been in self promotion, topped by his winning a vapid presidential campaign in which he convinced voters he was a unifying, if not messianic, figure. As to everything else he’s been a flop. His central problem is that the vast majority of Americans, at least for now, understand this is so.