Obama, the Anti-Politician
By Ken K. Gourdin
We’re now coming to realize what the President meant when he sold himself to the American people as “a new kind of politician” in 2008. There are at least two possibilities (perhaps there are more, but these are the two that spring immediately to mind): (1) President Obama is the kind of “politician” who doesn’t like to “do” politics, and prefers to leave those messy details to someone else so that he’s free to focus on “the big picture”; or (2) he’s the kind of “politician” who simply cannot do politics: he lacks whatever is necessary for him to be able to engage in the rough-and-tumble give-and-take that often lies at the very heart of the ability to get anything done in Washington. Either possibility is tenable when one considers the environment in which President Obama came to prominence and his résumé.
First, we’ll consider the environment in which he came to prominence. He was a community organizer in Chicago. Historically speaking, Chicago hardly has been a hotbed of political pluralism. (Even my own state, though now solidly and reliably red and therefore hardly known for political pluralism in the present, has more of a history of political pluralism than does the city of Chicago.) It’s not hard to build consensus when most everyone already agrees with you. With apologies to cat lovers (along with assurances that no cats actually were harmed in the writing of this blog post), one cannot swing a dead cat in Chicago without hitting a Democrat. (Ironically, even the allegedly-stodgy Mitt Romney, whom the voters rejected for the presidency [apparently because of his lack of charisma], having served four years as the Republican governor of an otherwise-overwhelmingly-Democratic state, was much better at consensus building than Obama is.)
Such consensus building is necessary because, oddly, D.C. is populated not only by Democrats, but also by a good number of these strange, allegedly-irrational creatures known as Republicans. President Obama, it seems, has been scratching his head in puzzlement for the past five years wondering what to do about that state of affairs, since neither wishing that such creatures didn’t exist nor hoping that they’ll simply go away has worked. (Perhaps an exasperated Obama is now saying to himself, in the immortal words of the Warner Brothers cartoon and Bugs Bunny nemesis, Elmer Fudd, “Wascally Wepubwicans!”) Indeed, not only have they not gone away, but in the 2010 midterm elections, inexplicably, even more of them came to Washington; and in the 2012 election, voters even allowed a surprising number of them to stay.
Second, we’ll now consider President Obama’s résumé. High office notwithstanding, seemingly, President Obama has yet to learn a crucial lesson that many more seasoned politicians learn early: Just because someone can do something doesn’t mean he should. Make no mistake: President Obama and his allies in Congress rammed Obamacare through the House and the Senate because they could do so without a single Republican vote. While Obama pays lip service to a desire and need for bipartisanship, it has been difficult to tell what the word actually means to him by observing how he governs. Perhaps he can only govern effectively if enough people agree with him. If he is at all adept at building consensus by at least attempting, somewhat, to accommodate those who don’t agree with him, he hasn’t shown it.
On one level, Obama’s seeming distaste for the dirty reality of politics is understandable. It’s true that the “horse trading” and “wheeling and dealing” often are how what should be straightforward spending bills get larded down with pork. While I don’t favor unrestrained fiscal largesse, inevitably, a certain amount of such deal making is a part of modern political reality. But while many such “logrolling” agreements (“I’ll support your measure to do [x] if you’ll support my measure to do [y]”) do add pork to what then become misnamed legislative and spending measures, not all of them do. And it’s not that President Obama and the Democrats are all that much in favor of fiscal restraint; they’re more than happy to avoid it, as long as copious sums of money are spent on what they consider to be the “right” things (and this is also true of many Republicans who pay lip service to fiscal sanity, as well).
President Obama didn’t spend enough time in the Senate to do much logrolling before voters elevated him to the presidency. While I have not conducted such a search myself, I suspect one would be hard pressed to find anything in the way of legislation sponsored (or visibly supported) by Obama during his short tenure as a U.S. senator. (Could one be forgiven, perhaps, for daring to call Obama a “back-bencher”?) Indeed, even during his tenure as an Illinois state senator, Obama is remembered not for having the courage to support or to oppose legislation, but rather simply for voting “present” . . . 130 times. As long as one maintains a comfortable seat on the fence, one needn’t deal with the dirty realities of politics.1
I hope one can be forgiven for wondering what effect that lack of political seasoning (and apparent accompanying fear to stake out potentially-unpopular public positions on various issues) has had on his ability to govern effectively as president. As many misgivings as one might have about politics (and about the fiscal bloat that too often results), monarchy and dictatorship, which are options Obama apparently favors over politics, are even worse.2
For all of his personal failings, Bill Clinton is such a wonk that he was much more adept at the nuts and bolts of governing than Obama has been — or, apparently, ever will be, for that matter. (Indeed, while listening to President Clinton’s speech nominating President Obama for a second term at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, I almost found myself wishing that Clinton was running for office again.) It’s impossible to know, but one wonders whether the rollout of the Affordable Care Act would have encountered as many problems as it has if Bill Clinton had been in charge rather than the seemingly much-more-detached Obama.
And while enough jokes have been told about President George W. Bush’s alleged lack of intelligence to fill volumes, in contrast to Obama, at least the younger Bush was smart enough to “know what he didn’t know” and to try to structure his administration accordingly. Obama, by contrast, always has struck me as someone who thinks he’s the smartest guy in any room he enters. For all of his professed admiration for President Abraham Lincoln, one could never imagine Obama fashioning his cabinet out of a “Team of Rivals.”3 A “Team of Yes-People” seems much more to Obama’s liking.
True, Obama hasn’t been a complete failure as a politician: In the history of the presidency, perhaps no one has done better at running for the nation’s highest office than President Obama. It’s just governing that he doesn’t like.
|1.||Raymond Hernandez and Christopher Drew (December 20, 2007), “Obama’s vote in Illinois often just ‘present,’ The New York Times, accessed on line at http://www.nbcnews.com/id/22335739/ns/politics-the_new_york_times/t/obamas-vote-illinois-was-often-just-present/#.Uo-lycSTjVs on November 22, 2013.|
|2.||Perhaps, in order to account for Obama’s apparent preference for monarchy, an update to historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s 2004 work The Imperial Presidency (New York: Mariner Books) is in order. In fairness, many of President George W. Bush’s critics would level the same criticism against him, and such a criticism is not wholly lacking in merit.|
|3.||See Doris Kearns Goodwin (2012) Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster.)|