Politico: WTF is wrong with President Obama?Posted: September 18, 2013
President Barack Obama says that he is less concerned with scoring “style points” for his improvisational handling of the Syria crisis than in “getting the policy right.” This dismissive defense comes at the precise moment that Washington is awash in brutal critiques of the Obama leadership style.The president’s harried, serial about-faces on Syria — coupled with the collapse of Larry Summers’s candidacy for chairmanship of the Federal Reserve — have combined to highlight some enduring limitations of Obama’s approach to decision-making, public persuasion and political management.
Across the capital, anxious friends and chortling enemies alike are asking: What’s wrong with Obama?
Any fair answer would acknowledge Washington’s impatient pack-of-wolves phenomenon — the tendency for the media and operative class to froth at the first sign of weakness — and would recognize that Obama has a foundation of genuine assets that have stayed intact during this summer of discontent.
But it’s also true, as acknowledged even by sympathetic lawmakers and some former Obama West Wingers in recent background conversations, that his presidency is in a parlous state, with wounds that are lately self-inflicted. That’s especially troubling because the unforced errors come in a second term when, historically, presidents are expected to be more clear-eyed and confident about the burdens of command. Here is a short list, based on nearly two decades of close observation of the presidency, of what’s wrong with Obama — at the moment, anyway:
• His mind
Even Obama’s biggest supporters may strain these days to recall one of the things they originally found most appealing about him: His obvious intelligence and the way it projected — casually articulate, coolly rational, comfortable with complexity and nuance. This seemed the perfect antidote to the fumbled syntax and glandular decision-making style of his predecessor.
From a young age, Obama has always been oriented toward deliberation, contingency, and a careful calibration of possibilities and risks. In his twenties, he listened so intently — and responded so noncommittally — to the feuding factions of the Harvard Law Review that all sides believed he had heard them out, and made him their leader. As an Illinois state senator in 2002, he won early attention for a stirring speech against the Iraq War, but also took pains to make clear, “I don’t oppose all wars,” only a “dumb war” or a “rash war.”
For all that some on the right see him as a dangerous radical, his political instincts have always been toward synthesis — borrowing ideas and language from multiple sides — and split-the-difference moderation. Early in his term, he settled on a market-based overhaul of health insurance with an individual mandate to buy coverage not out of deep conviction for this solution but because Republicans had once proposed the idea, even as most liberal Democrats wanted a more aggressive approach. Obama is a pathological rationalist, animated by his belief that the truth is usually not black or white but is found in the gray shades in between, and that reasonable people should embrace the seeming contradictions of divergent views to find a sensible way forward.
But presidents, like mere people, often discover that their flaws are a magnification of their virtues. This president lately has faced situations that cried out for a black-and-white sense of purpose, and unquestioned public command.
In Syria, he set a red-line warning against use of chemical weapons, watched the regime of Bashar Assad ignore it, then seemed to deliberate out loud through a kaleidoscope of options, from a military strike on his own authority, to a military strike with congressional assent, to diplomacy in league with a foreign leader, Vladimir Putin, who had spent the summer humiliating him in the Edward Snowden case. There is a coherent argument for military intervention. And there is another one for saying that that Assad’s atrocities are tragic but a problem for others to solve. But the president’s effort to argue both things came off as incoherent.
With the Summers nomination, Obama had made it clear in conversations with aides and members of Congress that the strong-willed former Treasury Secretary was his first choice to take over the Fed — and he even came to Summers’s public defense when critics attacked his personal and policy record. But Obama also allowed a vacuum to grow in which liberals in his own party felt no compunction about publicly registering their opposition, whatever their president’s preferences.
The common theme in both episodes is that they were about projecting power, not summoning sweet reason. Obama’s approach put him in the position of being bullied — in one case by a sworn enemy, in the other by ostensible friends — who could not have cared less about his own nuanced views. As Churchill once said of the Germans, “The Hun is always at your throat or at your feet.”
• His energy
The last wave of “what’s wrong with Obama” speculation occurred almost a year ago, following his somnambulist performance at the first presidential debate in Denver against Mitt Romney. That’s no coincidence. When Obama is bored, or tired, or frustrated — whether with himself or the House Republicans or the press — he can’t hide it.
Before the 2012 election, Obama told people in the West Wing that he saw three potential outcomes: The economy would tank and he would lose; he’d catch a wave of support and win a decisive victory that would break the back of his conservative tormenters; or, most likely, that there would be a split decision dictating several more years of Washington muddle. The last scenario has come to pass — and there is no indication so far that 2014 will bring the House of Representatives back under Democratic control.
Presidencies do ebb and flow between periods of drift and revival. A couple weeks after his reelection victory in 1996, far from being in a celebratory mood, a sullen Bill Clinton complained that he had been persecuted by the media and Republicans, and compared himself to falsely accused Olympics bomber, Richard Jewell. That set the tone for his mood over the next year — a bad spell that, paradoxically, didn’t break until he was energized by his impeachment battle against Republicans in 1998.
Obama has chosen a curious moment to run his presidency with how-to manual in hand, like a father constructing a swing set on Christmas Eve. Syria should not have been his Bay of Pigs or Bosnia, a foreign policy foul-up or crisis like those that bedeviled John Kennedy’s and Bill Clinton’s early tenures. This should have been a Cuban Missile Crisis or Kosovo, a moment to display the wisdom that comes with experience.
What’s more, Obama’s now on the brink of another showdown against Republicans over the budget (which he could be forgiven for feeling leaves him like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.”)
• His staff
Obama’s always-tight circle of aides and advisers has only gotten smaller and closer, and some of the crucial commanding figures of his first term — including David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Rahm Emanuel — are gone. The West Wing has had some important reinforcements, including Clinton veteran Jennifer Palmieri, but its most essential players have been running a sprint for six years, since the first campaign began in the winter of 2007. Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, who has been swamped juggling myriad White House communications challenges, last week experienced “stroke-like” symptoms and a diagnosis of high blood pressure at the ripe age of 37.
Obama still has plenty of hard-working, conscientious hands on his team — perhaps the most skilled among them his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who has pressed the president with limited success to step up his outreach efforts to Congress. But as is true of so many second-term staffs, this one is starting to have a second-string air.
• His philosophy
Nearly five years into his presidency, and nearly a decade after he first sprang to national notice with his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, there is still no such thing as Obamaism — no clearly understood philosophy or larger strategy of governance.
To the contrary, the president and his team have always had an allergic reaction to being placed on an ideological spectrum with any more precision than that he is a pragmatic progressive. Whatever that means. He has never tried to fashion a “Third Way” philosophy in the style of Bill Clinton, or stood for bold liberalism of the type exemplified by Ted Kennedy or, more recently, Elizabeth Warren.
This vagueness may have worked in his favor in two elections. But its problem for governing, as seen in recent weeks, is that it tends to leave Obama all alone, in a capital where he desperately needs allies and people who assume good will about the political maneuvering necessary for any effective president. Liberals regarded Obama as a sell-out for flirting with a Summers nomination, while the remnants of Clinton’s “New Democrats” have long been frustrated by Obama as someone who never really shared their critique of traditional interest-group urban liberalism.
On Syria, neither hawks nor doves believed that Obama was acting on any principle deeper than desperate improvisation to get out of a jam.
• His salesmanship
For all the dazzling reviews that once greeted his oratorical skills — and it has been a while since he has knocked a speech out of the park — he has never really proven himself as a salesman.
The more he talked about Syria, the less support his arguments for intervention had in polls. His rush to Summers’s public defense merely emboldened his critics. He passed a historic health care bill but has yet to make the public fully aware of its most popular elements — no denial of coverage for preexisting conditions, extended coverage for dependent children to age 26 — much less turn them to political advantage. This year alone he has lost legislative showdowns over guns and budget sequestration (though he did win an important battle late last year over tax hikes on the wealthy) even when he had the broader public on his side.
With big tests now looming on the budget and immigration, there could hardly be a better time for Obama to show at last that he has the ability to provide cover to the people who support him on difficult issues, and the ability to punish the people who choose a different path.