Obama Stands Alone

Assessing the reserved, reluctant politician in the White House

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The most lasting image in Scott Wilson's Washington Post essay on the aloofness and isolation of President Barack Obama is of the leader of the free world, the kids put to bed, sitting in front of his computer: "After hours, Obama prefers his briefing book and Internet browser, a solitary preparation he undertakes each night after Sasha and Malia go to bed."

The contrast is, inevitably, with Bill Clinton. Obama shuns the very duties that Clinton seemed to love. Working the room, shaking hands on the rope line, calling donors, calling senators, convening meetings, debating the strategy of political positioning and getting an agenda done. The Obama of this essay (its author covers the administration for The Post) is a loner and technocrat, one who takes refuge in policy, not people. He's a president increasingly isolated from even his own supporters.

Wilson watches Obama's recent speech to the Congressional Black Caucus, at which he annoyed some members by telling them to "stop crying":

He addressed the audience as one of them. But the first African American president has made clear that his race does not shape his policies, nor does he identify as a black politician. So his final command was puzzling, even infuriating, to some in the crowd.

“I expect all of you to march with me and press on,” he said. “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC.”

To watch Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a former CBC chair, address the president’s hectoring a few days later — she said Obama must have gotten “carried away” — was to watch someone unable to explain the motivations of someone she did not truly know.

In Wilson's telling, Obama has delegated the parts of the job that require a fervor for dealing with people. To Vice President Joe Biden, for instance, goes the task of lobbying powerful Democrats for their votes on key legislation. The refrain with which Obama and his team entered the White House — the mantra that "good policy equals good politics" — seems now "based on a naive reading of a hyperpartisan capital."

Obama’s policy-first approach diminished the importance of people — people on Capitol Hill and along K Street, let alone throughout the country — in pushing through his program and providing the White House with valuable intelligence. Whether it was a matter of giving the American public too much credit or not enough remains an open question for many inside the administration.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.