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A president tripped up by the spontaneous

By David Ignatius
Sunday, July 25, 2010; A19

If you want a handle on what ails the Obama administration (and who doesn't, these days), try thinking about it as the "scripted" presidency.

Barack Obama has been very good at following his mental teleprompter -- he has passed health care and much of the rest of the legislative agenda he campaigned on, as his supporters rightly keep stressing. But he has been less successful at responding to the roiling free-for-all of events that is part of governing.

For a genuine political animal, such as Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton, it's these unplanned events that make the job exciting, because they plunge the president into the maw of politics. By contrast, Obama and his advisers seem to avoid these moments whenever possible, and when the unexpected happens, as in the BP oil spill or the phony "racist" accusations against Shirley Sherrod, they often handle the media storm badly.

What accounts for this failing? Obama talked during the 2008 campaign about how he wanted to break from the politics of division. But 18 months on, I begin to wonder if it's politics itself that he doesn't like -- the messy process of wheeling and dealing, of making lowdown compromises for high-minded goals.

A memorable Obama moment came when he was a young senator listening to a consummate politician, Joe Biden, ramble on as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Shoot. Me. Now," wrote Obama to one of his aides.

A man who knows Obama well speculated a few months ago that this president isn't in love with the White House. The Post had run an article saying that with his dry intellect, Obama would be happier on the Supreme Court than in the Oval Office. The insider nodded his head. "That's true," he said.

This White House famously doesn't like surprises. The president gives few news conferences, and the ones he does hold are often wooden events, with little of the spontaneity and human theater that allow the country to get to know its leader. Obama calls on a pre-selected list of reporters; his answers are overlong and taxonomic. He is always smart and well prepared but rarely personal. Even as he was taking the country deeper into war in Afghanistan in December, his call to arms was bloodless.

This president doesn't do many unscripted interviews, either. The White House may grant one when it wants to roll out a prepackaged policy or theme. But Obama avoids open-ended sessions that might be "fishing expeditions," aimed at catching him in a mistake or on a subject outside the talking points.

Contrast the scripted, dry-bones nature of this White House with President Johnson, as described in an excellent new biography by Charles Peters, the longtime editor of The Washington Monthly. Peters captures the aspects of Johnson's conniving, manipulative "power personality" that were most unattractive -- the way he compulsively seduced women and humiliated men.

Johnson could be a monster. But as Peters reminds us, he was a brilliant politician. He loved getting in the muck and wrestling with people and events. His testosterone-crazed presidency produced some disasters, notably Vietnam, but he provided White House leadership for the civil rights movement in a way that began to remedy our deepest injustice.

I asked another administration insider to describe how Obama deals with sensitive national security issues. This official generally had high praise for Obama's intellect and analytical precision. The odd thing, he said, was that Obama doesn't often ask "presidential questions." By this, he meant that Obama rarely steps out of the scripted briefing points to ask: "Why are we doing this?"

Here's what I hope, as someone who wants Obama to succeed: His script is going to blow up in November. It's increasingly likely that Democratic House and Senate losses will be so large that Obama will have to scramble all the time. "Staying on message" and "no drama" won't be options in the freewheeling political environment that's coming.

Assuming that Obama wants a second term (which isn't always clear), the president inevitably will begin campaigning for reelection in 2011. That should get him out of the scripted realm, too, unless his advisers foolishly try to campaign with photo ops, canned events and a White House bubble machine.

Real politics, as opposed to the scripted variety, is fun to watch. Dealing with the unexpected is how politicians grow in office -- and how the public gets to know them better and like them more. Throw away the talking points, Mr. President, and just talk.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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