The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leon Panetta boiled down Democrats’ criticism of Barack Obama to one sentence

In this Feb. 13, 2013 file photo, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks during his last news conference as defense secretary, at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
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Former CIA director Leon Panetta was on "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on MSNBC on Thursday for an extended interview about the critiques he lobs at President Obama  in a new book entitled "Worthy Fights". The most cutting -- and perhaps most insightful -- portion of the interview was when Panetta told Mitchell about his disagreement with Obama's approach to politics. "Too often in my view the President relies on the logic of the law professor rather than the passion of a leader," said Panetta.

That simple sentence encapsulates much of the criticism that I've heard from Congressional Democrats (as well as many in the activist community) about President Obama for years. (That similarity is not an accident; Panetta spent almost two decades in the 1970s and 1980s in Congress as a House member from California.) There is a sense that Obama believes that simply proposing his argument is enough to carry the day. That the nitty-gritty horse-trading of the sort past Democratic presidents like Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton were legendary for is simply anathema to how he views politics and his role in it.

Take the Affordable Care Act. Once it -- finally -- passed, Congressional Democrats kept waiting (and waiting) for President Obama to take the message reins and sell the hell out of it around the country. While Obama did do some barnstorming in support of the law, it was never to the extent -- or with the intensity -- that Democrats on the ballot in 2010 thought it should be. The losses they incurred -- especially losing control of the House -- were laid at the feet of Obama by many of the people who lost their seats and those Members of Congress they left behind.

Since that debacle there has been an ever-present sense that the passion of Obama on the campaign trail in his 2008 election has never been matched while he has actually been in the White House. Obama as diffident -- or indifferent -- to the differences between what is good for him and what is good for the party has been a continuing source of frustration for Democrats in Congress. Not only, they believe, has he not been willing to really fight for his priorities but he also seems to not grasp that when he says things like "every single one" of his policies are on the ballot this fall, it makes their political lives that much harder.

Some of this tension is natural -- and transcends parties. Presidents always have a certain way of doing things that they believe works because, well, it got them elected president. And Members of Congress always feel as though the president of their party isn't paying enough attention to them and their needs because he is too focused on his own political life.

But, Panetta's comment does strike at the core of what many Democrats don't like or don't trust about Obama. They simply don't believe he understood/understands how Washington works -- Panetta said almost exactly that later in his interview with Mitchell -- and has never truly grasped that a single compelling argument alone isn't enough to change minds.

What's fascinating about this gripe with Obama is how much it plays into a) the argument that Hillary Clinton made against him in the 2008 presidential primary and b) the argument Hillary Clinton will likely make when (sorry, if) she runs for president in 2016. That argument, in short: I have been there and done that. I know what it takes to move the levers of power in Washington -- and I am willing to do whatever it takes to make them move.

That's a message that will appeal to many establishment -- and activist -- Democrats who feel as though they have spent the last six years with a Democratic president who didn't understand -- and didn't want to understand -- the realities of getting things done in D.C.