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.
Obama’s circle of close advisers is as small as the cluster of personal friends that predates his presidency. There is no entourage, no Friends of Barack to explain or defend a politician who has confounded many supporters with his cool personality and penchant for compromise.
Obama is, in short, a political loner who prefers policy over the people who make politics in this country work.
“He likes politics,” said a Washington veteran who supports Obama, “but like a campaign manager likes politics, not a candidate.” The former draws energy from science and strategy, the latter from contact with people.
Which raises an odd question: Is it possible to be America’s most popular politician and not be very good at American politics?
Obama’s isolation is increasingly relevant as the 2012 campaign takes shape, because it is pushing him toward a reelection strategy that embraces the narrow-cast politics he once rejected as beneath him. Now he is focused on securing the support of traditional Democratic allies — minorities, gays, young people, seniors, Jews — rather than on making new friends, which was the revolutionary approach he took in 2008, when millions of first-time voters cast their ballots for his promise of change.
This essay is based on conversations with people inside and outside the White House since March 2009, when I began covering the Obama administration. One of the first things that struck me in those early days was just how much the mythology of that against-the-odds campaign guided the new administration’s approach to governing. The idealism of 2008 infused the White House — as it did a popular president who had relied on new methods of outreach and communication, not on old Washington and its enervating ways, to win.
In the first two years, the phrase I heard often in the White House was “Good policy makes for good politics.” Even then, the principle seemed based on a naive reading of a hyperpartisan capital.
Obama’s policy-first approach diminished the importance of people — people on Capitol Hill and along K Street, let alone throughout the country — in pushing through his program and providing the White House with valuable intelligence. Whether it was a matter of giving the American public too much credit or not enough remains an open question for many inside the administration.
The president’s supreme confidence in his intellectual abilities and faith in the power of good public policy left the political advisers and policymakers in his White House estranged. The initiatives that have emerged have often been unpopular and unsatisfying — too small, too big, too beside the point — to a country consumed by economic uncertainty.
White House advisers have long sought to explain away what they consider a disconnect between the president’s achievements and his low approval rating as a failure of communication — and they blame a shallow national news media addicted to the inflammatory sound bite, the verbal gaffe, the latest poll and the failed prediction.
Obama, though, appears ready to accept a portion of the blame. He is chairing more strategy meetings than he once did. And recently he has convened some free-ranging Saturday sessions at the White House with staff and outside advisers on how to better connect with an electorate that, nearly three years after voting him into office, needs a new introduction.
In an interview with the writer Ron Suskindthis year, Obama even described his policy-wonk predilections as a “disease,” identifying with Democratic former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
But Clinton was famous for his on-the-sleeve empathy and moveable feast of friends who were particularly useful during the most difficult moments of his presidency. His wonkiness was offset by his personal touch.
And Carter, well, he served a single term.
In the 2008 campaign, the junior senator from Illinois faced the powerful Clinton machine, a network of friends, supporters and donors nurtured first by Bill and then by Hillary over decades. Obama sought to transform that strength into a weakness, casting it as a legacy of the politics he wanted to change and making a virtue of his own lack of attachments.
Obama’s support system was largely virtual, a vast database of young volunteers and small donors whom he reveled in bringing into politics.
As he and his advisers moved to Washington, their election victory provided a parable for governing: They could be self-reliant, overcome absurd odds, ignore the media and remain above the public sniping that they ran against so successfully.
Obama aimed for comity, the meta-message of his campaign. He began hosting weekly cocktail parties for both Democrats and Republicans. An invite to watch a Sunday football game at the White House became a sought-after prize in Washington. If nothing else, Obama, as host, was sending a message with his method.
But it rarely reached beyond the symbolic. Republicans, in particular, were less charmed by the president’s get-to-know-me outreach than taken aback by his retort to Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), then the House Republican whip, during an early negotiating session over the size of the 2009 stimulus package. “I won,” Obama told him, effectively ending the discussion over the balance of tax breaks and public spending.
And within the White House, a divide grew between those who helped engineer the president’s victory and those who joined the administration during the transition. The newcomers thought policy was being developed in a political vacuum, and they watched many of the administration’s proposals have a difficult time moving forward, even in a House and a Senate with large Democratic majorities.
To veterans of the campaign, though, it was more a matter of Washington not understanding the leadership upgrade that had just taken place. “He’s playing chess in a town full of checkers players,” a senior adviser and campaign veteran told me in the first months of the administration. Obama had a “different metabolism,” the aide explained.
“It’s not cockiness,” the adviser added, “it’s confidence.”
The assessment reflected the administration’s treatment not only of the Republican opposition — already feeling steamrolled by the partisan stimulus vote — but also of restless Democratic lawmakers who felt like junior partners in a White House-designed agenda.
The other problem for some of Obama’s nominal allies — economic populists, first-time voters, the anti-war left, Hill Democrats eager for direction after years in the cold — was that while he wasn’t looking for friends, he wasn’t looking for enemies, either.
When AIG was preparing to pay its executives millions in bonuses after receiving billions in bailouts, Obama’s inner populist and inner law professor couldn’t come to an agreement. He talked about contract law, then lashed out at the greed and moral bankruptcy of Wall Street, then urged the country not to scapegoat bankers.
Who was the president listening to? The academics, bankers and campaign operatives who populated his inner circle — with personalities much like his own.
White House officials invariably told me that Obama listened to everyone in meetings, then made decisions within a smaller group, rarely reaching outside the White House. “He’s not a guy that leans on others too much,” David Axelrod, his senior adviser at the time, told me in January 2010. “He processes things in his own mind.”
In that cerebral isolation, Obama used his first year in office to chase history rather than focus on the most immediate problem of the day — an economy shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs a month.
Biden, whose last-minute lobbying had helped push through the stimulus bill, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the frenetic former congressman from Chicago and onetime Bill Clinton adviser, were among the few who offered a feel for contact politics, a personal heat to offset Obama’s cool. They pressed the president to think and talk about jobs — the issue the public ranked as most important — above all else.
Instead, Obama chose health-care reform, a campaign pledge that promised him a place in American history and, in his technocratic take, would “bend the cost curve” of the country’s fiscal plight.
He often cited his mother’s cancer to illustrate the need to eliminate insurers’ restrictions on “preexisting conditions,” but he rarely made the ideological case his liberal base wanted: that in a country as prosperous as this one, health care should be a right.
Why, his supporters wondered, did the “cost curve” star in a story that should be about people and values?
As the unemployment rate nearly bumped 10 percent, Obama outlined his notion of health-care reform in his favorite way — a big speech before Congress in September 2009. Then he turned to lawmakers to draw up a bill that would ensure that every American had health insurance, an elusive liberal goal for decades.
But the process — marked by partisanship and the first stirrings of the tea party — overwhelmed the substance, and Obama became a sporadic player in the long drama. Congressional Democrats complained that he rarely offered to help, and only at the end, in the spring of 2010, did he campaign publicly outside Washington on behalf of his signature legislation.
To many on the Hill, protecting the “Obama brand” appeared to be the White House’s imperative — more important than having a popular president help vulnerable Democrats support the bill and defend their districts. By the end of the year, many of them were no longer around to complain, swept away in a midterm rout.
“It’s easy to get overly focused on Washington,” one senior Obama adviser and campaign veteran told me, adding that it was essential to preserve the president’s high approval rating at the time because it “gives us tremendous running room to get things done.”
That historic legislation, however, has become a political burden for Obama as he heads into 2012. The months it took to secure health-care reform ate up political capital that could have been used on job-creation initiatives, such as the one he is pushing now against stiff Republican opposition.
“That’s classic Washington,” a senior adviser told me in the fall of 2009 when I asked about the trade-off. “The idea that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”
But some political advisers fantasized privately about having smaller majorities in Congress. That way, legislation would have to be tested and vetted outside the White House first, rather than presented as a done deal to congressional leaders, who found that condescending.
“What if we proposed something that was actually popular?” one senior adviser who was not part of the campaign said a year into the administration. “There’s only so much spinach people are going to eat.”
On the stump, Obama is often the star of his own story, preferring a first-person identification with nearly any issue.
He has called himself the first Pacific president, embraced his Irish roots, joked about being part Polish because of the years he spent in Chicago and presented his up-by-the-bootstraps life as proof that America can dig itself out of its current hole.
Late last month at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, the former president delivered an impromptu master class on how to beat Republicans, complete with advice for Obama on how to overcome their anti-government message.
“If you’re going to fight that,” he told a room full of engrossed former advisers, “your counter has to be rooted in the lives of other people.”
Obama famously reads 10 staff-selected letters from ordinary citizens each day, and at his news conference Thursday he referred to the plight of Robert Baroz, an accomplished teacher in Boston who has been warned three times that he might lose his position, as a reason to pass his jobs bill. (Baroz visited the White House recently but never spoke to the president.)
But where is everyone else in the running autobiography that is the Obama presidency?
The president never spends more than 15 minutes working a rope line, his advisers say, and donors complain about a White House that keeps Obama away from the necessary push and pull of America’s capitalist democracy.
The Clinton presidency, which Obama frequently praises for its economic stewardship, offers an instructive comparison.
Where Clinton worked a room until he met everyone, Obama prefers to shake a few hands, offer brief remarks and head home to spend the night in the residence, so he can have breakfast with his girls the next morning and send them off to school. That may be good for his mental health, but it’s a challenge for those in the reelection campaign assigned to manage the whims of big donors.
Unlike Obama, Clinton reveled in not only the strategy of politics, but also its personal elements. To his advisers’ chagrin, he sought advice far outside the White House and outside the Democratic Party. He lobbied intensively for his legislation. Emanuel once recalled being awoken at 3 a.m. by a phone call from Clinton, who wanted another list of on-the-fence members of Congress he could call to secure passage of his crime bill. (Emanuel pointed out the time, then gave him the names.)
After hours, Obama prefers his briefing book and Internet browser, a solitary preparation he undertakes each night after Sasha and Malia go to bed.
Where Obama spends minutes with donors, Clinton allowed some to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. And Clinton, of course, had the Friends of Bill, who helped him out of trouble (and also got him into it). Obama rarely uses the trappings of his office or his status to make new political allies, whether it’s an evening phone call to a big donor or a thank you to a legislator who casts a tough vote.
Obama’s life and background could easily have produced a populist, and many Democrats are surprised that the former community organizer from Chicago’s South Side is not a bit angrier in public, a bit more connected to people’s troubles during tough economic times.
Traveling abroad, Obama presents himself as both an American president and a citizen of the world. At home, he has maintained a political image unattached to the racial, ethnic and demographic interests that define constituencies and voting blocs. That may increase his appeal to independents, but it also leaves him without an obvious base of support.
Now, though, he is appealing to traditional allies. In recent weeks, he has spoken to the Congressional Black Caucus, the Human Rights Campaign (a gay rights group), a Hispanic “virtual town hall,” and other ethnic and interest groups that he needs to rally behind him in 2012.
Addressing the Congressional Black Caucus last month, Obama spoke of “when Michelle and I think about where we came from — a little girl on the South Side of Chicago, son of a single mom in Hawaii — mother had to go to school on scholarships, sometimes got food stamps” and recalled gratefully the “generations [that] struggled and sacrificed for this incredible, exceptional idea that it does not matter where you come from.”
He addressed the audience as one of them. But the first African American president has made clear that his race does not shape his policies, nor does he identify as a black politician. So his final command was puzzling, even infuriating, to some in the crowd.
“I expect all of you to march with me and press on,” he said. “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC.”
To watch Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a former CBC chair, address the president’s hectoring a few days later — she said Obama must have gotten “carried away” — was to watch someone unable to explain the motivations of someone she did not truly know.
With just over a year before Election Day 2012, advisers say that Obama recognizes his people problem and is working to address it. Beyond the Saturday reconnect sessions, his stump speeches advocating for his jobs plan are becoming more populist and partisan. He is outside the Beltway more, reaching out to voters. His supporters, though still worried, are starting to like what they see.
But inside the Beltway, the legacy of his relationship, or lack thereof, with Democrats on the Hill remains a problem for his jobs plan — and, by extension, his political future.
A senior Democratic strategist told my colleague Chris Cillizza recently that “the person running out of air most quickly” is Obama himself, and there may not be many who come to his rescue.
“We’re about a year out from the elections, and the senators are turning to their own races,” the strategist said. “They don’t have a lot of energy or political capital to spare for the president at this point.”
Scott Wilson covers the White House for The Washington Post.
Post White House correspondent