President Obama: An Introvert in an Extrovert's World

President Barack Obama needs to make more friends in Washington.

By + More
President Barack Obama looks at his supporters after speaking at an Organizing for Action dinner. Though ostensibly a non-profit, the group has yet to apply for tax-exempt status with the IRS.
President Barack Obama looks at his supporters after speaking at an Organizing for Action dinner. Though ostensibly a non-profit, the group has yet to apply for tax-exempt status with the IRS.

President Obama survived a terrible week in Washington unscathed in the eyes of the American people. Out there in the rest of the world, his poll numbers are still high.  

But a shiver must have run through Obama as he heard the hue and cry from the news media and Republicans in Congress accusing him of being Nixonian and using the word "scandal" for the Benghazi affair and the Internal Revenue Service and Associated Press spying cases. The rough ride, captured by a picture of him frowning skyward at the rain in the Rose Garden, will not soon be entirely over or forgotten. 

You've heard the feminist refrain: "The personal is political." Well, the political is also personal in this town. Depend upon it, reaching out to form personal bonds is what the Capitol runs on. You can see it during votes on the Senate floor and in the House Speaker's Lobby. Lawmakers are always touching each other, looking right at each other as they tell jokes or stories or trade for a favor. That is what political animals do. They like to be liked. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Here's the rub. The president just doesn't have many old-fashioned friends, at least not in Washington, to lean on when he's in trouble. He lost his two best Democratic friends and advisors early on, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. 

The last lion in the Senate forest, Kennedy, often roared when he spoke on the floor. The champion of crafting bipartisan legislation, he would have sped things along for Obama  (whom he endorsed) on all fronts. But he sadly died in the summer of 2009. Unfortunately, Obama got rid of Daschle as his Health and Human Services Cabinet pick on a minor tax matter. A man of substance, Daschle also enjoyed enormous respect on both sides of the Senate aisle and could have warmed up any room speaking for his boss. No such luck now. 

Five months into his fifth year, the president keeps an elegant distance from the club he belonged to, the Senate. Much of the Senate groundwork goes to the gregarious Vice President, Joseph Biden. As for the Republican House, Obama hardly darkens its door anymore, once he figured out Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has no intention of working with him. The House Democratic caucus feels neglected in the face of the famous Obama charm. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Who is he saving it for? If politicians sense Obama doesn't like them much, then a fallow field lies ahead. 

Obama may be living a paradox as leader of the free world: He's an introspective character caught in an extrovert's line of work. Pundits ask why he can't be more like his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, in schmoozing and socializing with members of Congress. The answer is: proud Obama can't be like the warmblooded Big Guy anymore than he can be like the formidable Lyndon Johnson. Both run counter to his cool, cerebral psychological type and temperament. Campaigning comes easier to him, because he can be the only star onstage. Governing from the Oval is more like being the captain of a ship or a team, with a sense you are all in it together. It's teamwork behind the scenes, not in front of adoring audiences. 

It's clear by now that Obama's presidency would run a smoother course if he cultivated friends, allies and cronies to call on in getting a major initiative done, whether on an immigration bill or closing the military jail on Guantanamo. We saw gun control legislation fail when he could not round up a handful of Democrats to keep a promise to the American people. In the wake of the Newtown school shootings and for want of a stronger presidential presence, gun control went down in the Senate. In a crisis, you find out who your friends are. Obama found he was several short of 60, the number needed to overcome a Senate filibuster. 

Note to Mr. Obama: it's not too late to start making some new true friends. It may change the way the rain and wind blow.  

  • Read Boris Epshteyn: Republicans Can't Forget the Economy During Obama Scandals
  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Amidst Obama Scandals, Republicans Prepare a New Debt Ceiling Hostage
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad