The Boulevard of Broken Dreams
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.