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.