Convention weeks are boring and predictable except when they aren’t. This week, Democrats got some unfortunate surprises, some of their own making, which made for lively news and many happy Republicans.
The platform battle about putting back in references to God and Jerusalem (over the boos of the crowd) remains an embarrassment for the Democrats. Politico yesterday reported that President Obama had signed off on the original platform, but aides today were in damage-control mode:
The metaphor for Obama’s presidency — incompetent, scrambling to catch up, ham-handed on American values and antagonistic toward Israel — is evident.
But the most alarming news for the Democrats, I think, came in the early release of excerpts from the new book by The Post’s Bob Woodward, “The Price of Politics.” The day after former president Bill Clinton spoke, reminding us of a gregarious, deal-making and effective president, and the day of Obama’s big speech to plead for four more years, comes an account that suggests the president failed to lead in the debt-ceiling fight, has been manhandled by Congress and is frankly not well liked.
The retelling of the debt-ceiling negotiations, and of Obama’s decision to up the ante by $400 billion on taxes, reminds us that Obama, in essence, spiked the deal. He simply did not get the job done. From Woodward’s book: “It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition. . . . But presidents work their will — or should work their will — on important matters of national business. . . . Obama has not.” Or, as Republicans say, he has not lead.
There are plenty of tidbits suggesting that “adults in the room,” as the Democrats like to put it, were congressional leaders who cleaned up the mess the White House left. The Post reports on the aftermath of the grand bargain’s failure: “Obama, surprised, told [House Speaker John] Boehner and the others that they could not exclude him from the process, Woodward reports. ‘I’ve got to sign this bill,’ he is quoted as saying. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid then said the four leaders wanted to speak privately, asking Obama to leave a meeting he had called ‘in his own house,’ in Woodward’s words. The president, fuming, agreed to let them talk. ‘This was it,’ Woodward writes. ‘Congress was taking over.’” Talk about leading from behind.
There is also much to fuel the argument that the president is temperamentally cold, standoffish and therefore not effective in forging deals with lawmakers or reaching accommodations with outside interests. “The book portrays Obama as a man of paradoxical impulses, able to charm an audience with his folksy manner but less adept and less interested in cultivating his relationships with Reid and Pelosi. While the president worries that he can’t rely on the two leaders, they are portrayed as impatient with him. As the final details of the 2009 stimulus package were being worked out on Capitol Hill, Obama phoned the speaker’s office to exhort the troops. Pelosi put the president on speakerphone so everyone could hear. . . . ‘Pelosi reached over and pressed the mute button. They could hear Obama, but now he couldn’t hear them. The president continued speaking, his disembodied voice filling the room, and the two leaders got back to the hard numbers.’ ” Well, conservatives will be comforted to know that Democrats think he is a gasbag, too.
Mostly what comes through in the initial excerpts is the arrogance, a man whose self-image is vastly out of kilter with his abilities. “Woodward’s portrait of Obama, sketched through a series of scenes from meeting rooms and phone calls, reveals a man perhaps a bit too confident in his negotiating skills and in his ability to understand his adversaries.” He considered the speaker a Republican rube. He treated business leaders disrespectfully as well:
In the same vein, Woodward portrays Obama’s attempts to woo business leaders as ham-handed and governed by stereotype. At a White House dinner with a select group of business executives in early 2010, Obama gets off on the wrong foot by saying, “I know you guys are Republicans.” Ivan Seidenberg, the chief executive of Verizon, who “considers himself a progressive independent,” retorted, “How do you know that?”
Nonetheless, Seidenberg was later pleased to receive an invitation to the president’s 2010 Super Bowl party. But he changed his mind after Obama did little more than say hello, spending about 15 seconds with him. “Seidenberg felt he had been used as window dressing,” Woodward writes. “He complained to Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama aide. . . . Her response: Hey, you’re in the room with him. You should be happy.”
It is not merely a portrait of a man who failed in his most critical domestic challenge; it is a portrait of someone unable to do the job. By putting meat on the bones of the Republicans’ arguments, Woodward, maybe more than Jerusalem and God, has created a whole new problem for the president’s effort to persuade voters to keep him on for four more years.