Obama the loner
The Post’s Scott Wilson penned a provocative piece over the weekend that cast President Obama’s current political problems through the lens of his loner tendencies.
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.
Time and again in our reporting over the last few months, this strain of thinking has come up — and the deeper President Obama’s political troubles grow, the more often we hear it.
In the wake of President Obama’s press conference last Thursday, there was considerable skepticism — bordering on contempt — for his assertion that now was the time for the Senate to pass his jobs bill.
And, this morning the New York Times’ John Harwood wrote that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) views White House chief of staff Bill Daley as “ham handed” and that leading Democrats believe that “Team Obama’s zeal for secrets creates more problems than it solves.” Message. Sent.
One veteran Democratic campaign operative put it more bluntly when asked to assess Obama’s approach: “He just hates politics and politicians.”
At the heart of that ill will is a belief that Obama has been a fair-weather friend to congressional Democrats (and most of the party’s elected officials), using them when necessary (like now) and ignoring them the rest of the time.
Of course, testy relationships between a President and congressional leaders within his own party isn’t terribly new. Remember that then President Bill Clinton built his 1996 re-election strategy on triangulation — the idea of running against his own party to cast himself as a centrist problem solver.
(Not surprisingly, some Democrats are now worried that the same is happening to them heading into 2012; Obama’s “attempts to triangulate aren’t working and senators resent it,” said one senior party strategist with close ties to the Senate.)
But, unlike Clinton who spent much of the ‘80s in the political minor leagues, doing favors for and building relationships with the major establishment figures within his party, Obama has, from the start, been a lone wolf — and proud of it.
When he ran for the Senate in 2004, he was not the party’s pick — well-connected state Comptroller Dan Hynes and wealthy businessman Blair Hull split that distinction — but managed to win when Hull imploded.
In 2008, Obama, again, found himself running against the establishment — in the form of then New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. (Yes, Obama did have some support from the party establishment but it was nowhere near the backing Clinton enjoyed and largely silent until it became clear he was going to be the nominee.)
The lesson Obama and his campaign team learned? That courting the establishment was of marginal value since they were the sort of bend-like-a-reed-in-wind sorts that would be with him if he won big policy fights anyway.
The Obama go-it-alone approach to politics paid huge dividends during the 2008 campaign as it allowed him to paint himself as the consummate outsider in an election where people were craving just that.
But, Obama’s loner tendencies have served him far less well as president and now, as he turns to his bid for a second term, threaten to leave him isolated with little political cover from his own side.
Obama is doing what he can to remedy that problem with a base-intensive strategy of late designed to remind Democratic voters — and elected officials — why they like him.
The question for Obama is whether the problem is fixable. The level of distrust is significant and long-held. And the timing couldn’t be worse.
Obama needs the Senate to pass some semblance of the American Jobs Act in order to put pressure on House Republicans to act. But, the combination of the distrust directed at him and the reality — in the words of one senior Democrat — that Senators are “turning to their own races” makes it a tough sell.
Obama’s “ a man apart” image played a major role in his 2008 victory. It may well play an equally large role — in a bad way — in his 2012 re-election campaign.