February 11, 2012


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. (JAMES FALLOWS, March 2012, The Atlantic)

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.

...really think Michelle is his friend?

Posted by at February 11, 2012 7:11 AM

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