November 28th, 2021


How Barack Obama Became the Anti-President

Mort Zuckerman

By Mort Zuckerman

Published December 8, 2014

President Obama is about the loneliest president of modern times. The sixth year of every two-term presidency usually comes with the loss of party colleagues and a drop in approval ratings. Obama has suffered that and more. Why?

His Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, kept all the Senate seats in his second term and had an approval rating at this point in his presidency of 65 percent, compared to Obama's 41 percent. In fact, Obama's low approval ratings are almost as bad as George W. Bush's (32 percent), which were in free fall during his second term.

] Personality counts a lot in leading a country as diversely volatile and adventurous as the United States, especially when the other party controls Congress. Obama had the luxury of a Democratic Congress in his first term, but in four years he developed few personal friends in either party. He endures, rather than enjoys, the small talk and the backslapping of retail politics. His relationship with Democrats on Capitol Hill is frosty, and that is being generous. This is a president who doesn't really like the kind of politicking that involves the personal lobbying of Congress for his programs and legislation. He doesn't have to imitate Lyndon Johnson, who got things moving by grabbing legislators by their lapels and reminding them what he knew of their misdemeanors. But being aloof doesn't cut it either.

As Washington Post White House correspondent Scott Wilson put it a few years ago, "Obama is, in short, a political loner who prefers policy over the people who make politics in this country work." His lack of personal fellowship was captured by Todd Purdum in a 2013 Vanity Fair profile. He described Obama precisely: "He is "a community organizer who works alone." So it is no wonder that his circle of close advisors remains the same cluster of personal friends that predated his presidency.

Obama is rather like another intellectual president, Woodrow Wilson, who preferred solitude, time with his family and making policy himself. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote, nobody ever called him "Woody." Like Wilson, Obama has total confidence in his own intellectual powers and his capacity to formulate public policy. He just thinks through problems on his own and doesn't seem to depend on others for their opinions. But the isolation of both men carried a price. It has cost Obama heavy resistance, as it did Wilson dearly when he failed to create his precious League of Nations.

In his first year in power, Obama decided to focus on health care reform. And careful reform was necessary to help millions of uninsured. But many thought a more urgent demand was the economy — jobs, jobs, jobs. The public ranked lack of work as its most important concern. Obama chose health care reform because he thought this would give him a place in American history. He misjudged his ability to "bend the cost curve" of health care. Alas, his political relationships with Congress were so limited and so susceptible to partisanship that they ultimately overwhelmed whatever he might have been able to do to advance his health care program. Indeed, Obama's signature legislation ultimately became a political burden, dramatically undermining his public support and diminishing his political capital.

It is almost mysterious how little he connects with people. In his six years in office, his relationships have been impersonal, and his lack of rapport with Congress has become a serious issue. He does not possess the natural instinct to relate to the emotions, hopes, and insecurities of political leaders, not to mention the countless small acts of flattery and social favor exchanges that go along with the presidency. Wilson had a supporting staff that made up for his limitations in private dealings and negotiations. Obama does not. Obama's only real executive training has been the management of his political campaign. He quite simply dislikes the idea of inviting a bunch of congressmen and senators over to the White House for a drink or a movie, even though those are the kinds of ceremonies that are the price of admission if you want to be a politician and you don't control Congress.

Secondly, and critically, economics was the commanding domestic issue of Obama's initial years. The most urgent issue of jobs and coping with the lack thereof was a subject that did not come naturally to him. But when people couldn't pay their home mortgages, they were looking for a president who connected with them on these issues. They were met by an aloof and diffident Obama.

What a contrast to Bill Clinton, who had the magical capacity to connect with crowds and with individuals of all kinds. He did it (and still does) with genuine empathy and without condescension. He won the admiration of the people at large and developed the necessary presidential relationships — on a one-on-one basis — with key members of Congress.

Turns out Obama is instinctively distant in his private dealings and negotiations with Congress. No wonder mistrust has suffused the White House and Congress connection that is key to making a divided government work. Many Republicans considered Obama's inaugural address unusually confrontational, according to The Wall Street Journal. There was not a finger, let alone a hand, extended across the aisle, and the result is that Obama and John Boehner, the Republican leader of the House, are hardly on speaking terms.

It also didn't help that Obama's lack of executive experience left him reliant on the instincts and institutional memories of others. The American people, having rejoiced in his election as the first black president, felt that Obama didn't grasp emotionally what they were feeling and going through.

Obama's rhetoric has always exceeded his program. In his first inaugural address he stated that "our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions" was over. Many read this as a promise that he would go beyond the perennial economic short fix and make some hard choices to put government more in balance with its resources. What did he do? He pushed his Affordable Care Act, compromising the opportunity for a serious effort to address our fiscal mess.

As the first African-American to be elected to the presidency, Obama's message was optimistic and spiritually uplifting, and a delighted press nurtured his image. But his initial romance with the public cooled quickly. He seemed unable to create a consensus. The best he could do was to attack successful people as millionaires and billionaires and "takers," as he heaped insults on Wall Street "gamblers."

Most clearly, he hasn't sought out potential alliances with Republicans and now comes across as one of the more divisive presidents in modern history, a sharp contrast to the great presidents who were uniters. His class warfare language has only intensified partisan gridlock.

The result is the fading of his romance with the American public. He lacks the warmth and approachability of a Bill Clinton or a Ronald Reagan and comes across as too cool for America and too inexperienced to educate people out of their anxiety.

Obama's personality over time has been hard to read and hard to trust, particularly when he has seemed to be seeking to transform America into a European-style nanny state, marked by a bloated public sector, burdensome regulations, high taxes, unsustainable entitlements and, accompanied as these factors usually are, by weak economic growth. This was not the vision of Americans, who are increasingly unhappy that we seem to

have a leftist-leaning ideologue in the presidency. As The New York Times' Maureen Dowd put it, this was a man who doesn't seem to like the bully pulpit, just the professor's lectern. Even the millennial generation, one of his core voting groups, has begun to drift away. The result is that America today is even more deeply divided than when Obama started his first term.

These days, Obama is belatedly trying to deal with growing economic inequality. But he lacks the policies that will generate the type of job growth needed to reverse years of economic decline, and he has now wasted most of his political capital.

Looking at other dimensions of Obama's performance, Kimberley Strassel contributed a devastating portrait in a recent Wall Street Journal article. He is, she asserted, "a lousy boss." Although every administration has dysfunction and churn, "rarely, if ever, has there been one that has driven more competent people from its orbit — and chewed up more professional reputations." She goes on to say that "The president bragged in 2008 that he would assemble in his cabinet a 'Team of Rivals.' What he failed to explain to any of the poor saps is that they'd be window dressing for a Team of Select Brilliant Political Types Who Already Had All the Answers: namely, himself and the Valerie Jarretts and David Axelrods of the White House." She described Obama as a boss who doesn't listen, views everything politically and always thinks he's right.

And then there's this: Obama has had over 195 golf outings, over 400 fundraisers, and over 130 vacation days. It seems like he spends as little time as humanly possible doing his job as president. Governing seems to be secondary to being a celebrity. When he came back from his summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard, he immediately left Washington to attend several fundraisers and then claimed we don't have a strategy for ISIS terrorists.

All this at a time when pessimism about the economy is widespread. The U.S. has lost 3 million full-time jobs and now has over 3 million more part-time positions than at the start of the economic meltdown in 2007. Roughly 45 percent of American families today have a median income that is lower than at the end of the recession, with an average drop of roughly $4,500 in spending power annually. No wonder too many families still work too many hours for too little to show for it. If income inequality is the defining issue of our time, Obama has failed here more than any president in the modern era.

Obama is seen as the anti-president. He sometimes acts in manners at odds with the framers of the Constitution. For example, as University of California-Berkeley law professor John Yoo points out in the National Review, rather than negotiate with Congress, Obama granted executive exemptions from immigration law to a large class of illegal immigrants. Rather than seek legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, "the president ordered his Justice Department to stop defending the law in court," says Yoo. He changed the work requirements of welfare reform by executive order, even though the measure had passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Keep in mind that Obama told us again and again that this time would be different. But he is responsible for the long painful slide from hope and change to partisan gridlock. He turns out to be the odd case of a pragmatist who can't learn from his mistakes. He has failed to fill the leadership void. He doesn't lead, and he doesn't understand why we don't feel led.

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Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report.