Obama, Explained

As Barack Obama contends for a second term in office, two conflicting narratives of his presidency have emerged. Is he a skillful political player and policy visionary—a chess master who always sees several moves ahead of his opponents (and of the punditocracy)? Or is he politically clumsy and out of his depth—a pawn overwhelmed by events, at the mercy of a second-rate staff and of the Republicans? Here, a longtime analyst of the presidency takes the measure of our 44th president, with a view to history.
Every President Is Ill-Suited to Office, Each in a Different Way

What have we learned about Barack Obama’s particular versions of the weaknesses every president brings to office? The diagnoses I heard, and have myself observed, fall into four main categories:

Inexperience: that Obama’s own lack of executive experience left him reliant on the instincts and institutional memory of others—and since so many of his appointees came from the Clinton administration, he was also vulnerable to ’90s-vintage groupthink among them. This was particularly true, as we’ll see, during his response to the economic crisis in his first year in office, and then during his showdowns with Congress after Tea Party–inspired Republicans regained control of the House.

Coldness: that what looks serene in public can seem distant and aloof in his private dealings and negotiations.

Complacency about talent: that the disciplined excellence he demands of himself—in physical fitness and appearance, in literary polish of his speeches, in unvarying control of his mood and public presentation—has not extended to demands for a comparably excellent supporting staff.

Symbolic mismatch: that Obama’s personal achievement in rising to the presidency betokened, for much of the electorate, far more sweeping ambitions for political change than Obama the incrementalist operator ever had in mind.

You could write a treatise on each of these, as scholars undoubtedly will. Here is the sort of material you would use in the discussion.

About inexperience: “The key to everything is that he was a first-term senator, and one who began running for the presidency in the second year of his first term,” Gary Hart told me. “Governors have better odds of becoming president, but the Senate can be an ideal place to meet … the new thinkers, hear about things and ideas that are over the horizon, and develop your own network of people you trust and will draw from. Because he began running so quickly, that is something he had little chance to do.”

Several people pointed out that Bill Clinton, though younger than Obama when he became president, had developed a network of advisers, friends, and thinkers through his nearly 12 years as a governor and a lifetime as a contact-maker across the United States and around the world. By the time Bill Clinton ran for the White House, thousands of people considered themselves FOBs, Friends of Bill. If you asked who his closest or “best” friend was, apart from Hillary, you would never get to the end of the answers. Obama had a much thinner array of Friends of Barack. When I asked associates and friends who his confidants were, apart from Michelle, the one name that kept recurring was Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of both Obamas in Chicago and a senior adviser in the White House, sometimes followed by his strategist David Axelrod. Because his own network of advisers was limited, and as part of the settlement of the bitter primary battle with Hillary, Obama inherited many of the Clintons’ contacts and team members.

“In any new administration … the 20-somethings who’d been working in the campaign … get the second- and third-layer staff jobs,” Hart said. “And for Obama, you had his immediate Chicago group. But the staff and policy positions—the Podestas [John Podesta, Clinton’s White House chief of staff who co-chaired Obama’s transition team] and Rahms [Rahm Emanuel, a Clinton White House adviser who became Obama’s first chief of staff], and in State, Defense, and the NSC—it was essentially a third Clinton term.”

Some such carryover is inevitable and healthy, since junior members of one administration are natural candidates for senior posts the next time their party comes to power. The difference many people stressed was Obama’s comparative lack of an offsetting team of his own, and the edge that gave to those whose instincts were developed in the Clinton era. “When I look at the first year,” one person told me, “I see people saying, ‘Here is what we tried to do in the ’90s, let’s try it again—and here is my Rolodex [sic!] of people to work the problem.’” A person who has worked closely with the White House staff said, “Early on, you had all these Clinton-era economist-technocrat types”—Lawrence Summers, Peter Orszag, Timothy Geithner, and the like. “The danger is that if one of them is making a mistake, everybody agrees, and they’re all making the same mistake.”

Another person, who has extensive national-level experience, said that the biggest surprise for any new president is the strain placed upon the “decision-making muscle,” since the choices that come upon him every day are precisely those the rest of the government has not been able to resolve. The question for someone whose only real executive training has been the management of his campaign is “how quickly that muscle will develop and improve”; as it is developing, the instincts and institutional memory of those around him inevitably have great effect. Obama frequently emphasizes how many troubles he faced as soon as he took office. The real problem, for an inexperienced president, is that he had to make so many big decisions so fast. How tough to get on Wall Street; how hard to push for extra stimulus; how much time to give Congress to mull health-care plans; how much to trust the Republicans to cooperate; how long to delay on energy and environmental plans—these are just some of the choices Obama had to make about domestic affairs.

With the clarity of hindsight, many of the choices look ill-considered, to say the least. He should have been harder on Wall Street, less patient about drafting of the health-care bill, more suspicious of Republican efforts to block his legislation and nominees. Plus, he should have made sure that Martha Coakley knew who Curt Schilling was! “I think they made a fundamental strategic error in presenting the health-care plan the way that they did,” Jim Webb, the Democratic senator from Virginia, told me. “They were so conscious of not presenting Congress with a 1,000-page fait accompli, which was the big complaint about the Clinton plan, that they farmed it out to five committees and let 7,000 pages of health-care plans percolate up.” Walter Mondale, the former vice president, made a similar point. “He had his honeymoon, but he took the position that he would let Congress work this all out. I think a president has got to be on legislators’ backs all the way through, or it won’t get done—or will be done in a way that involves all kinds of private packages on the Hill.”

These misjudgments were the result of his own inexperience—and his reliance on a staff whose own formative experiences were mainly from the Clinton years and who were refighting some of those battles under different circumstances. But through the past year, his “decision muscle” appears to have developed. He has continued to make big strategic calls—from authorizing the assault on Osama bin Laden to defying the Republicans over the payroll-tax holiday—and most have gone his way.

Cool—or Cold?

About coldness, the next item on the standard list of complaints: Politicians appeal to the left brain—ideas, interests—but at least as much to the emotions, hopes, and insecurities associated with the brain’s right side. Politics inside Washington also runs on countless small acts of flattery and social-favor exchange: Who gets tickets for the White House box at the Kennedy Center? Who will get a signed picture with the president to display on the office’s “brag wall”?

“President Obama’s extra-high intellectual capacity is simply not matched by his emotional capacity,” I was told by someone with long experience in the executive branch. “Surprisingly for someone who led such an inspirational campaign, he does not seem to have the ability to connect with people.” At the non-glorious but important retail level of politics, this leads to complaints by Democratic representatives and senators about having to ask for the small strokes to their vanity that matter so much, and that politicians as different as Bill Clinton or either of the George Bushes would administer instinctively. One senior fund-raiser, who considered himself beyond having any specific favors to ask of the administration, kept waiting for an invitation to visit the White House. Eventually he was invited for a briefing there, along with a number of others who had played supportive roles in the campaign. “The president walked in, he sat down in the front row of the briefing room, he listened along with everyone else, and then he walked out without speaking to anyone,” a person familiar with the event said. “People would just as soon have not been invited.” I heard variations of this story from legislators and others in the role of miffed supporter.

You hear this kind of griping about whoever is in the White House; and if you have the slightest introverted tendency yourself, you can sympathize with the desire not to be “on” and engaged with people who want your attention every instant of the day. Bill Clinton, of course, is not fully alive unless “on.” Like Clinton and unlike George W. Bush, Barack Obama is said to be a night owl. But in the wee hours, Clinton would be on the phone, playing cards with friends, gabbing about history and politics, or doing anything else that involved live human company. Obama is more likely to be spending time with papers or a book, or even to be online—prowling through the same blogs and news sites as the rest of us, which is somehow unnerving given a president’s otherwise total cocooning from the daily details of shopping, driving, waiting, in ordinary Americans’ lives.

It turns out that Obama is sufficiently aware of and sensitive about his Mr. Spock–like image to have called it the “biggest misconception” about him in a year-end interview with Barbara Walters on ABC in December. It was entirely wrong, he said, for the public to think of him as “being detached, or Spock-like, or very analytical. People who know me know that I am a softie. I mean, stuff can choke me up very easily. The challenge for me is that in this job … people want you to be very demonstrative in your emotions. And if you’re not sort of showing it in a very theatrical way, then somehow it doesn’t translate over the screen.”

Whatever he thinks his real emotional makeup might be, the challenge of “showing it,” and translating it over the screen, affects his ability to lead. As an explainer of ideas through rhetoric, Obama has few recent peers. And at least twice in the past four years, he has changed national opinion, and politically saved himself, through the emotional content of his words and presence. Once was in March 2008, when the media storm about his radical-sounding pastor, Jeremiah “God Damn America!” Wright, threatened to end his candidacy. Then Obama responded with his speech in Philadelphia about the meaning of race in America—which at least for a while, and for at least enough of the electorate to let him survive, made his mixed-race heritage a symbol not of threatening otherness but of the country’s true nature. Then, in January of last year, his party’s historic rout during the midterm elections had made Obama seem as shrunken and defeated a figure as Bill Clinton had seemed after his midterm losses 16 years before. But even his usual opponents hailed Obama’s speech in Tucson after the horrific shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords and others, for its sober but healing emotional power. One conservative blog, Power Line, said it was a “brilliant, spellbinding, and fitting speech”; John Podhoretz, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, wrote in the New York Post that it was “beautiful and moving and powerful.” Politically, this is when Obama seemed to return to life after the midterm disaster.

Jimmy Carter, like Obama primarily a creature of the left brain, had no comparable moments of emotionally triumphant rhetoric. But elevated as they are, such moments are still exceptions to Obama’s mainly rational appeal. His natural register involves great issues of law and race—but not economics, and especially not economic struggle, which has turned out to be the commanding domestic issue of his time. Obama ran for office when the most urgent issues seemed to be war and peace, plus the moral basis of America’s standing in the world. He has ended up governing when the most urgent issue has been jobs-jobs-jobs, which, as a matter both of policy and of rhetorical connection, comes less naturally to him.

“Politics changes when people can’t pay for their home mortgages and can’t afford medical care and can’t send their kids to school,” Walter Mondale told me. “It is such a humiliating blow to be the head of a family and be unable to work and provide, that people don’t respond entirely rationally all the time. It can explode in politics in a hard-to-understand way.” Mondale said that until the midterm elections, Obama was seen—incorrectly, in Mondale’s view—as an “aloof and diffident president in the eyes of those who were suffering.” But he has now, Mondale thinks, changed his tone.

“The president,” another very experienced Democratic politician told me, “is the only person in the American system who represents all the people, and learning what you need to know to effectively represent all the people is really impossible to do with intellect alone. You have to understand, emotionally, what people are feeling and going through. You have to cut through whatever intellectual jargon is given you by your advisers and pollsters, and cut right to the core. We don’t see that in Obama. I have seen him try to synthesize it, but it comes across as synthetic.”

Complacency about talent? This is a wounding charge for any administration, and perhaps the most surprising thing to hear about one that has a former senator and presidential contender in one Cabinet post and a Nobel Prize–winning physicist in another, that attracted a prospective Republican presidential candidate to the most important overseas diplomatic assignment, and that at different stages has deployed the likes of David Petraeus, Robert Gates, and the late Richard Holbrooke. But here is a representative story, which I heard several times: Just before the midterm elections, which undid then-Representative Rahm Emanuel’s achievement of leading a Democratic takeover of the House in 2006, Emanuel announced that he was leaving as White House chief of staff to run for mayor of Chicago. Shortly after William Daley, himself the son and brother of Chicago mayors, succeeded Emanuel in the White House, he came to Obama with his initial report. You are reeling, he said—stating the obvious after the Republican surge. Part of the problem is that the team around you is not good enough. To raise your game, you have to surround yourself with the best people available. There have to be changes.

Obama thought about it, and reportedly called Daley back in a few days later. “I like my team,” he said. “I am comfortable with who I have around me. Just so there’s no miscommunication, I’m saying that I like this team.” (The White House declined to comment on the episode.)

“The people he is most ‘comfortable’ with have the same limits of experience he does,” a veteran political figure told me. “An emotional reliance on people who are good people, and smart, but simply not A-plus players—it’s a limit.” These discussions often revolve around the central role of Valerie Jarrett in the Obamas’ professional and social lives. Her supporters say that she is the one friend they can truly trust; her detractors say that her omnipresence illustrates the narrowness of the president’s contacts.

Again, if you have been around politics, you have heard complaints about every White House staff—this one is too quarrelsome, that one is too paranoid. The one I was part of, in the Carter administration, was called Dogpatch-like and incompetent in its time. Several people who spoke on the record, like Lawrence Summers, made the opposite case about Obama. “Some White House staffs are well organized and disciplined, but the president is distant,” he said. “Others have intense presidential involvement but also some chaos, with micromanagement and relitigation.” Obama’s operation, he said, has been distinctive. The Obama team, he said, “stands out for having both intense presidential involvement and reasonable organizational order.” Still, this was the minority view—and given the brilliance of Obama’s campaign and the rigor of his standards for himself, “a subpar collection of talent” is not the complaint I expected to hear.

And symbolic mismatch? On the night he was elected, as a rhetorical opening of his speech to the throngs in Grant Park, Obama said, “Change has come to America.” He was careful to add that his election was only the beginning, that there was hard work and disappointment and—though he didn’t use the word—compromise still ahead. But every presidential election seems at the time to signal a new era, and that night the success of a handsome young black intellectual inevitably aroused expectations of comparably dramatic changes in policies. “I get the importance of his own achievement, and I celebrate it, but it was the wrong thing to say,” a senior Democratic official told me. “He opened himself to the interpretation that the great struggle was over just by virtue of his being elected, that ‘change had come’ to America before he had spent a day in office.”

In an influential Atlantic cover story published before the election, called “Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters,” Andrew Sullivan argued that precisely because of who Obama was—not just of mixed race but of a new generation, one not doomed to endless trench warfare in the cultural struggles that began in the 1960s—his election would in itself be significant, apart from any policies he might enact. Except for his early and politically crucial opposition to the Iraq War—the choice that made him rather than Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee—Obama’s policies placed him, if anything, to the right of Clinton and the rest of the Democratic field. For instance, he attacked Clinton’s health-care plan because it included an “individual mandate” to buy insurance. “If a mandate was the solution,” he said on CNN not long after her victory in the New Hampshire primary, “we can try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody to buy a house.”

No one remembered. A man who looked the way Obama did and ran on the platform of Hope necessarily faced expectations that would never have fallen on a President John Kerry, or Joe Biden, or Hillary Clinton. If Obama loses this year, inescapably he will be judged as a disappointment—not simply for having lost but for having governed in such a prosaic style after campaigning with such poetry. After Václav Havel’s death, late last year, TheNew York Times reported that he had met Obama shortly after Obama’s inauguration and given him a warning. “Limitless hope” projected onto a leader could be dangerous, Havel reportedly said, since “disappointment … could boil over into anger and resentment.” Obama told Havel that, as The Times put it, he was becoming “acutely aware” of the possibility.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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