Richard Cohen
Richard Cohen
Opinion Writer

Obama, enigma in chief

Just when the Democratic Party needs more of Bill Clinton, there is less of him. The former president is a reed of his former self, trimmed by heart disease and a veggie diet. Still, when I saw him last week, people flocked to him and he held forth, synthesizing the great issues of the day, describing the black Scroogian heart of the Republican Party, holding me (among others) close until, with reluctance, I drew myself away. He is the anti-Obama. He gives so much of himself. Barack Obama gives so little.

The president who will lay out his reasons for seeking a second term is an odd political duck, a politician who does not appear to like people. Among the people he seems to like the least are his fellow politicians, including members of the Senate with whom he once served. The other day I talked with one of them — a Democrat — who rarely hears from Obama. This senator has zero respect for the president’s political abilities. The commander in chief is not — pardon the cloying term — a people person.

Richard Cohen

Cohen writes about politics in a weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog.

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Ann Telnaes animation: Mitt Romney talks to the chair.

Ann Telnaes animation: Mitt Romney talks to the chair.

By now, this is an old story. I have talked with corporate chieftains who never hear from the president — not on the economy, not on the European crisis, not on the jobs crisis. I have talked with business leaders whose recommendations, perhaps too bluntly put, were imperiously dismissed by Obama. All of Washington knows of congressional committee chairmen who cannot get their phone calls returned. At night, the president retires to the White House’s family quarters where only Valerie Jarrett of the Obama staff is welcome. Chiefs of staff come and go, but Jarrett remains.

So what we have is the Obama Paradox. Here is a man who is supremely gifted as an orator but dreadful as a schmoozer. His keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic convention put him on the national stage, and within four years, he was his party’s nominee. His speeches during the 2008 campaign caused the young, among others, to swoon. That July, he spoke to what seemed like half of Germany at a Berlin rally, and a bit more than a year later he won the Nobel Peace Prize based on nothing more than his rhetoric. He could make a fantastic demagogue. He chose, however, to make a crummy politician.

Ironically, Obama has cited Abraham Lincoln as a president whose leadership he admires. Lincoln no doubt could deliver the big speech — his two minutes at Gettysburg went directly into the American canon. But Lincoln’s other talent was talking, telling stories, sharing tales — and listening and listening and listening. He loved the game of politics, and he was gifted at it. He juggled a Cabinet of egomaniacs and back-stabbers (read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”) and kept his Republican Party from shredding over the bloody-shirt issues of the day, among them emancipation of the slaves. Lincoln met with everyone.

Obama and Clinton don’t much like each other. They have their reasons, but Clinton got a coveted prime-time slot for his speech, the one usually reserved for the vice president. Obama showed both poise and confidence in allowing that, but he can more than hold his own in this regard. He was born for the podium. It is from Clinton’s manner, his open-faced welcome, that Obama ought to learn. Clinton is a Venus Flytrap of a politician. Walk near him and you are caught. There are precious few stories about Clinton not returning phone calls.

Obama has faced a mean and petty Republican Congress. Some of the partisan rhetoric has been ugly — so ugly that Clint Eastwood felt entitled to demean both himself and the office of president in one of the vilest moments of any recent political convention. Obama has been called a liar — shouted by a congressman during a nationally televised address to Congress, in fact. His citizenship has been impugned, his vaguely leftist views have been caricatured as socialist, the best-seller list seems always to have a sulfuric anti-Obama diatribe on it, and — the questionable polls notwithstanding — some of the furious opposition to him reeks of a deep, not superficial, racism. To some, Obama just doesn’t look like a president.

He’s had a rough time. So did Lincoln, so did Lyndon Johnson and so did Clinton when he faced impeachment. Presidents need to know how to fight. Sometimes you use the bully pulpit. Sometimes you use a golf game. This president has many enemies. One of them, amazingly, is himself.

cohenr@washpost.com

 
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