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.