Beyond the economy, the wars and the polls, President Obama has a problem: people.
This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors. His relationship with Democrats on Capitol Hill is frosty, to be generous. Personal lobbying on behalf of legislation? He prefers to leave that to Vice President Biden, an old-school political charmer.
Obama’s circle of close advisers is as small as the cluster of personal friends that predates his presidency. There is no entourage, no Friends of Barack to explain or defend a politician who has confounded many supporters with his cool personality and penchant for compromise.
Obama is, in short, a political loner who prefers policy over the people who make politics in this country work.
“He likes politics,” said a Washington veteran who supports Obama, “but like a campaign manager likes politics, not a candidate.” The former draws energy from science and strategy, the latter from contact with people.
Which raises an odd question: Is it possible to be America’s most popular politician and not be very good at American politics?
Obama’s isolation is increasingly relevant as the 2012 campaign takes shape, because it is pushing him toward a reelection strategy that embraces the narrow-cast politics he once rejected as beneath him. Now he is focused on securing the support of traditional Democratic allies — minorities, gays, young people, seniors, Jews — rather than on making new friends, which was the revolutionary approach he took in 2008, when millions of first-time voters cast their ballots for his promise of change.
This essay is based on conversations with people inside and outside the White House since March 2009, when I began covering the Obama administration. One of the first things that struck me in those early days was just how much the mythology of that against-the-odds campaign guided the new administration’s approach to governing. The idealism of 2008 infused the White House — as it did a popular president who had relied on new methods of outreach and communication, not on old Washington and its enervating ways, to win.
In the first two years, the phrase I heard often in the White House was “Good policy makes for good politics.” Even then, the principle seemed based on a naive reading of a hyperpartisan capital.
Obama’s policy-first approach diminished the importance of people — people on Capitol Hill and along K Street, let alone throughout the country — in pushing through his program and providing the White House with valuable intelligence. Whether it was a matter of giving the American public too much credit or not enough remains an open question for many inside the administration.
The president’s supreme confidence in his intellectual abilities and faith in the power of good public policy left the political advisers and policymakers in his White House estranged. The initiatives that have emerged have often been unpopular and unsatisfying — too small, too big, too beside the point — to a country consumed by economic uncertainty.
White House advisers have long sought to explain away what they consider a disconnect between the president’s achievements and his low approval rating as a failure of communication — and they blame a shallow national news media addicted to the inflammatory sound bite, the verbal gaffe, the latest poll and the failed prediction.
Obama, though, appears ready to accept a portion of the blame. He is chairing more strategy meetings than he once did. And recently he has convened some free-ranging Saturday sessions at the White House with staff and outside advisers on how to better connect with an electorate that, nearly three years after voting him into office, needs a new introduction.
In an interview with the writer Ron Suskindthis year, Obama even described his policy-wonk predilections as a “disease,” identifying with Democratic former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
But Clinton was famous for his on-the-sleeve empathy and moveable feast of friends who were particularly useful during the most difficult moments of his presidency. His wonkiness was offset by his personal touch.
And Carter, well, he served a single term.
In the 2008 campaign, the junior senator from Illinois faced the powerful Clinton machine, a network of friends, supporters and donors nurtured first by Bill and then by Hillary over decades. Obama sought to transform that strength into a weakness, casting it as a legacy of the politics he wanted to change and making a virtue of his own lack of attachments.
Obama’s support system was largely virtual, a vast database of young volunteers and small donors whom he reveled in bringing into politics.