On Explaining Obama

By James Fallows

201203.jpgIt's time to dig into the mailbag of responses about my current article on Barack Obama's strengths and weaknesses.

On the theory of Obama's "cold" personality, a reader in California writes:

For better or worse, he's not Clinton or Bush, who recharge their energy around other people. Being with him is electric, but I have the feeling that generating that electricity leaves him drained. But the question is not whether he is the best president we could have hoped for; he is obviously a better president than McCain would have been.

On two related temperamental issues: again the coolness, and whether has surrounded himself with a team of advisers too comfortable for his own good. (Plus, whether I am right in saying that George W. Bush was better as a second-term president than in his first.)

My recollection about the Bush Administration is that the first part of his second term was disastrous -- Katrina, Iraq completely falling apart in civil war, the Social Security privatization failure. He was still a cocky bastard during '05 and '06. It wasn't until Rove and Rumsfeld left, and most importantly (IMHO), Andrew Card left and Josh Bolten became Chief of Staff, that he finally gained control over his presidency...

I mention it because I'm in agreement with your assessment of Obama's mediocre appointments. I remember the relief initially that, at last, there would be sane,
competent people in important positions -- Geithner, Rahm Emmanuel, people who I thought knew what they were doing. What a disappointment! I'm glad you examined that part of the Obama Presidency.

Secondly, to the question of Obama Cool.  I'm sure that many of your correspondents are correct in their assessment. But what I see and no one has mentioned is Stanley Ann Dunham. His mother's influence.  If one reads the NY Times pieces on A Singular Woman, about Obama's time as a child in Indonesia with his mother, and the cultural emphasis onbeing "refined" one sees that influence, I think, in President Obama. The pieces detail how he was ridiculed and bullied for being black, and his mother saying "No, he's O.K. He's used to it." The cultural importance of being refined and under self-control at all times, to the extent of not sneezing in public. In adult Barack Obama I see that refined self-control, and the exquisite, even courtly, manners as his mother's influence. Just another piece of the puzzle.

From a long-time veteran of Congressional and defense politics:

I was most disappointed [to read] the Daley story about Obama's preference for comfortable advisers despite their mediocrity.

I liked your use of the Jim Rowe memo, which I think was probably more significant than the better known Clark Clifford memo.

You are also right to point out the media's a-historical or myopic approach to campaign and presidential history. Are they all just too young?

I would offer a different take on a couple of points:

1. Rather than being naive [or maybe in addition to], I think Obama was a prisoner of his above-partisanship rhetoric. He couldn't just switch course when McConnell talked about making him a one-term president; he had to wait until every story out of Washington reinforced the "GOP won't deal" theme.

2. I think he followed the Democratic congressional leadership on healthcare. They didn't want to be saddled with another "Hillarycare" and Baucus thought the gang of six would work -- as such efforts had worked in the past. Obama suffered by being deferential to Congress, but I think he would have been in worse shape, and no more successful, if he had tried to push through his own bills on health and other topics.

3. I remain impressed by his strategic patience on a whole range of policy matters. He doesn't seem (at least until recently) particularly responsive to the 24/7 news cycle -- a rarity among politicians, as you know.

Still to be covered, in your next piece: Why has the WH personnel shop been so bad about filling vacancies -- not just the courts, but the Fed, and numerous other Exec Branch posts?  Are they spooked by the threat of controversy? Or are their criteria too rigid?

Foreign policy: Compare Jim Jones to Tom Donilon. Why did Jones fail and what are Donilon's strengths? Where does Denis McDonough (one of those Senate-staff "comfortables") fit into the system?  How does the system work now with Panetta instead of Gates?

From  a reader in Florida:

I commend you for highlighting Valerie Jarret's role in a relatively understated fashion. My belief is that, while she may be a talented close personal friend and advisor to the Obamas, nothing has prepared her for a role as White House advisor. If I were to have Presdient Obama's ear for five minutes, I would suggest that in his (presumed) second term he pivot to...well, a John Podesta type. Someone whose policy chops, political skills, and loyalty/discretion are beyond question.

If a second term is to be a bold, consolidating vision that truly makes Obama a transformative president (even with an oppositional Congress), he must move beyond what I assume is Jarret's overly protective advice. I don't know the cast of progressive experts well, but surely Obama should shake things up and let Jarret oversee the "softer" sides of presidential politics (I'm not being sexist here; it would be great if a Hillary Clinton or Susan Rice filled a senior advisor role)

From a veteran of two Democratic administrations:

From my personal experience I want to concur with your assessment of many top Obama staff. In the Nineties during the Clinton administration I worked in a White House office that, while often chaotic, made impressive progress and was staffed by bright, idealistic, and largely competent individuals who understood teamwork and modern management principles. 

When I was recruited to work in the Obama administration in a similar crow's-nest capacity, I saw quite the opposite.  Many of the top-level operatives I observed were way out of their depth, with poor to nonexistent management skills, unbalanced personalities and vast overconfidence.  Further, there is gross abuse of the growing system of contracting, with highly paid ex-military personnel providing precious little value and being "managed" by staff people who could be doing the work themselves. Taxpayer money is being squandered with far too little to show for it, and there is a dire need for a personnel housecleaning in the top echelons of the government.  The contrast with the Clinton years is painful to watch, and it has damaging consequences for the nation. It is puzzling to me that a leader of Obama's caliber could have assembled such a mediocre crew, and I sincerely hope he has a second term to afford him time to correct the problem.

Many of these letters began with "great article! I learned X and Y and Z," for which I'm grateful to the readers. I always strip that part out not because of Uriah Heepish faux modesty but because inevitably it looks odd. Still, I appreciate it.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/02/on-explaining-obama/253696/