Is the president too cool for politics or is he a magical thinker?
Ezra made an interesting observation this morning in a post about last night's bipartisan dinner party:
It’s a common complaint from both Republican and Democratic legislators that Obama simply doesn’t like talking to them. Conservatives recall that Bill Clinton loved getting their opinion and would listen for as long as they wanted to talk — even while they were impeaching him. I spoke recently with a liberal senator who fondly remembered that former President Bush repeatedly invited him up to the White House even as the senator spent every single day investigating and opposing Bush in the Senate — Obama, he said, has spent less time with him than Bush did.
It would be easy to discount these complaints, but as any reporter who deals often with Congress will tell you, they’re constant, and they come from both sides of the aisle. It’s the same complaint that came from wealthy liberal donors during the election. Obama just doesn’t like the grip-and-grin, small-talk side of politics and political players who are used to receiving that attention end up feeling neglected.
The process that typically produces national politicians selects people who like schmoozing donors and building countless relationships and sending Christmas cards to everyone they’ve ever met and making their colleagues feel loved. But whereas Bush and Clinton and pretty much every other president had lived and excelled in that world for a very long time as a precondition for coming to the White House, Obama’s rise was so swift and unusual that he came to the White House lacking some of the typical traits of national politicians. His trajectory simply selected for different traits — including a deep impatience with the kabuki rituals of Washington politics.
In many ways, that’s why voters like him. But it doesn’t always serve him well with other political elites.
To be honest, I think that's something of a convenient conceit. President Obama was a skilled and experienced politician long before he won the office. And nobody wins it without political skills. And make no mistake, what Ezra is describing are political skills, not personality traits.
But whatever. The more important aspect of this is that Obama ran for office as the guy who could transcend party divisions, heal the nation and change Washington. A whole lot of people believed that (maybe even the Republicans on some primitive level --- for about a month.)But what, exactly, was supposed to be the mechanism for this? If he is the guy Ezra describes, then he obviously believed it would happen by the sheer force of his charismatic persona.
This isn't a new subject here by any means. I've written about it many times. Mostly I've said (generously I think) that the administration believed their own hype which is to say they thought the mere fact of winning the election would bring the Republicans around. But I'm beginning to agree with David Atkins that it's deeper than that:
President Obama is a man of many admirable qualities and strengths. But he has a character flaw worthy of Shakespearean tragedy that is perfectly illustrated in this little snippet. That flaw is the desire common to many tragic anti-heroes imbued with a certain narcissism, to believe that he can do what no others can--in this case, to transcend seemingly impossible political divides by bringing the two parties together to achieve bipartisan policy goals.
And if what Ezra says is true, he evidently believed he could do it without lowering himself to politics! Apparently the idea was that by simply proposing bipartisan solutions to vexing problems, everyone would agree and we'd all check them off our lists until everything was fixed and our terrible political culture was healed. That truly is narcissistic.
I don't know if it's the case that he's not "reached out" enough personally or whether DC crybabies are simply playing for attention. (It wouldn't be the first time.) I don't know that any amount of outreach would make a bit of difference. After all, these people are complaining that he isn't as nice as Bill Clinton was and they impeached Clinton for his trouble. So, I'm not going to assume that any of that is true.
But if Ezra is right and the president really is aloof and hostile to the political process then he was guilty of more magical thinking about "hope and change" than even I previously believed. And regardless of the personal psychology, it's political malpractice to believe that the mere force of his own personality would be enough to change a political culture. I'm not sure what would have done it, but then I thought it was a ridiculous thing to promise in the first place. You deal with the political culture you have, not the one you wish you had. You certainly can't change it by simply saying "make it so" --- it changes by virtue of the success or failure of government to address the needs of the people.