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A president in need of a political spark

By David Ignatius
Sunday, August 22, 2010; A15

Last January, President Obama made a tellingly unpolitical comment to ABC's Diane Sawyer: "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president."

Obama was talking to Sawyer about his pet project of health-care legislation, which already was politically dicey. He explained his approach to governing in the most idealistic terms: "You know, there's a tendency in Washington to think that our job description of elected officials is to get reelected. That's not our job description. Our job description is to solve problems and to help people."

I heard Obama make a similar disavowal of politics at a White House lunch for columnists in December, when he defended his politically risky (but generally correct) decisions to bail out Wall Street and the auto industry:

"If I were basing my decisions on polls," he said, "then the banking system might have collapsed, and we probably wouldn't have GM or Chrysler, and it's not clear that the economy would be growing right now."

I turn back to these comments because the country is still struggling with Obama's views on the right of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero. Intervening on this issue was a classic dumb move, politically. Hillary Clinton, say, would have known instantly that the correct answer is to leave this complex issue to the elected officials of New York City. The White House had taken this position until Obama decided, on principle, that he must speak out for tolerance.

I think the president is right on the mosque issue (as on health care and his economic rescue efforts). But the larger point is that we truly have a leader who keeps doing the wise thing on policy (assuming you agree with him) but the dumb thing on politics.

Politicians often like to brag about how they aren't really political animals but public servants. It's almost a political cliche, to accompany a craven decision with the statement: "I'm not doing this to win votes, but because it's the right thing to do."

But Obama is different. He truly doesn't seem to relish politics, in the raw, mix-it-up sense. Most of all, he isn't needy for public attention in the way our most neurotic and gifted politicians have been -- walking outpatients such as Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton. He doesn't like red-hot; he likes cool and deliberative.

Obama's tidy, button-down style is clear when you look at those who have prospered in his administration and those who haven't.

Let's examine first the people who got bounced. Adm. Dennis Blair's biggest crime as director of national intelligence, near as I can tell, was that he talked too much in briefings, inserting what the president thought were personal opinions. Greg Craig's demise as White House counsel is still a puzzle, given his legal talent, but critics argued that the expansive Craig ran an untidy shop.

An interesting example of the administration's ability to shrink large political personalities is Richard Holbrooke, the special coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke's garrulous style is utterly different from Obama's, and the White House appeared to be on the verge of dumping him early this year when the secretary of state is said to have intervened. Holbrooke has been on a short leash -- not making trouble, but not as effective as he might be.

Now look at the people who have Obama's ear: Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They're low-key, low-maintenance personalities who could fit in a moderate Republican administration as easily as this one.

If national security adviser Jim Jones (another disciplined, button-down guy) retires at the end of this year, there's talk he may be replaced by Gen. James Cartwright, the current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. His precise, laser-sharp briefing style has impressed Obama. And Obama has ended up embracing Gen. David Petraeus, perhaps the greatest briefer in modern times, who could rival Obama in a Mr. Cool contest.

Maybe Obama, the anti-politician, really doesn't care if he gets reelected, so long as he's doing what he thinks is right. Somehow, I can't imagine this breakthrough president stepping aside to write law-review articles. But to stand a chance in 2012, he's going to need someone to light a fire under him, someone who can play politics fiercely -- and also can bring in some new voters.

Surely it's obvious that I am describing Obama's second-term masterstroke: Vice President Hillary Rodham Clinton.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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