It began two days ago with a five page article by Scott Wilson in the Washington Post:”Obama, the loner president.” The article depicted the president as coldly intellectual, uninterested in the everyday lives of human beings except on an abstract plane. Wilson wrote,
[T]his 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.
The only friends he had were an “inner circle” about which there is more later.
Ted Mann at the Atlantic Wire added to the drumbeat. He argued that Obama did not even seem to be a “black president,” he was a cipher even to Maxine Waters. Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post suggested that Obama wasn’t even a Democratic Party man, saying even members of his own party have never felt so unwelcome at the White House:
And, this morning the New York Times’ John Harwood wrote that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) views White House chief of staff Bill Daley as “ham handed” and that leading Democrats believe that “Team Obama’s zeal for secrets creates more problems than it solves.” Message. Sent.
One veteran Democratic campaign operative put it more bluntly when asked to assess Obama’s approach: “He just hates politics and politicians.”
At the heart of that ill will is a belief that Obama has been a fair-weather friend to congressional Democrats (and most of the party’s elected officials), using them when necessary (like now) and ignoring them the rest of the time.
Secrecy. Isolation. Distance.
If politics is a rogue’s game, success in it also requires a rogue’s charm, which principally consists of the usual low-life glad-handing but most of all a sure touch in the division of the spoils. A gang chieftain must always remember that he lives by the gang.
But as Michael Goodwin in the New York Post writes, it looks like the president “walks alone.” The “gang” is out there to be summoned and used, then dismissed. He inhabits an inner circle consisting of Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod; the wrong inner circle perhaps, since members of his inner cabinet — including the secretaries of state and the treasury — complain of exclusion.
The gist is this: President Obama has become a lone wolf, a stranger to his own government. He talks mostly, and sometimes only, to friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett and to David Axelrod, his political strategist.
Everybody else, including members of his Cabinet, have little face time with him except for brief meetings that serve as photo ops. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner both have complained, according to people who have talked to them, that they are shut out of important decisions.
The president’s workdays are said to end early, often at 4 p.m. He usually has dinner in the family residence with his wife and daughters, then retreats to a private office. One person said he takes a stack of briefing books. Others aren’t sure what he does.
Jonah Goldberg says some who’ve looked up at the lighted window in the high tower believe that it must be that the great wizard is thinking. He is studying the stars to divine a profound wisdom; he is polishing his “policy skills,” a talent suggested by Wilson in his original piece. “In the first two years, the phrase I heard often in the White House was ‘Good policy makes for good politics.'” But Goldberg asks: if Obama is a policy wizard then where is the wizardy?
Heck, if he’s spent so much time focusing on getting the policies right, why are things so bad? Why are they so much worse than he predicted? Why did it take him so long figuring out reality was sharply veering from his assumptions?
Here’s a thought: Maybe Obama is just a big fan of public policy the way I’m a big fan of movies? I can talk about movies all day long. I can discuss camera work, acting, story, directing etc. with some fluency. I can even talk about how movies are financed and the role of foreign markets. But you know what? I don’t have a frickn’ clue how to make a Hollywood movie (and I’ve actually made some documentaries).
Maybe he’s not a public policy Scorsese. Maybe he’s, at best, the Roger Ebert of policymaking – or more likely, just a policy buff.
Which is another way of saying he’s sawed the lady in half and her corpse has been carted away. He tried to pull a rabbit out of the hat and came up with a handful of lint. He’s tried to escape from straitjackets in chains and is still trying, long after the audience went home. Like Goldberg says, “where is the magic?”
But if there is no wizardry, what’s he doing then? Maybe the president is retreating into light reading or watching entertainment the better to forget. That would be human and natural. The worst interpretation of Obama’s behavior is that he’s now in a mental bunker, still planning his victories, still convinced of his destiny, in an atmosphere masterfully portrayed in the movie Downfall. In that movie, a terminally defeated Hitler maneuvers imaginary armies against the advancing Red Army tide and no one has the nerve to tell him that the units on the map no longer exist.
And the Red Ink tide is advancing. The New York Times — that dependable cheerleader of liberal policies — has admitted the possibility that the economic equivalent of General Steiner can no longer attack to relieve the occupants of the bunker. Jeffrey Somer writes that bad as things are they may get worse:
at least one organization with an exceptionally good track record says another recession may already be here. That is the Economic Cycle Research Institute, a private forecasting firm based in Manhattan. It was founded by Geoffrey H. Moore, an economist who helped originate the practice of using leading indicators to predict business cycles. Mr. Moore died in 2000, but the team he trained is still at work.
Relying on a series of proprietary indexes, the institute correctly predicted the beginning and the end of the last recession. Over the last 15 years, it has gotten all of its recession calls right, while issuing no false alarms.
That’s why it’s worth paying attention to its current forecast. It’s chilling: as bad as the economy has been, it’s about to get worse. … It’s just a forecast. But if it’s borne out, the timing will be brutal, and not just for portfolio managers and incumbent politicians.
That means if anything that the stimulus didn’t work. That Green Jobs didn’t work. That ObamaCare didn’t work. And that probably the jobs program won’t work.
People facing adversity can be in one of two broad states. Those in the first case retain confidence in their basic ability to surmount problems because they’ve made a dent against them in the past. They’re in the game, even though the issue remains in the balance.
But those in the second case are in a completely different situation. They realize they should never have been in the ring in the first place. They’ve lost confidence in being able to solve the problem because everything they’ve tried — in which they had supreme confidence — has backfired. And like a boxer who realizes that all of his moves are revealed by comparison to be clumsy and ineffective against an opponent who is hitting him at will, what succeeds wild optimism is simply forlorn hope: hope that he can last out the bout, the round, or just the next flurry.
Maybe that’s all the president has left. The hope he can edge over the finish line in 2012. He’s done the bus tour; done the joint session of Congress speech. Now he’s down to sending his Occupy demonstrators into Wall Street. If that doesn’t work, what does he do next week when the polls fall further, when the clamor to investigate Solyndra and “Fast and Furious” grow louder? What does he do when unemployment soars?
The wizard retires to his tower early each night and the lights stay on. But what can he conjure next? What power can he invoke? If he walks alone with only Jarrett and Axelrod to whisper in his ear, what could go wrong?