Obama's People Problem

The president's inability to connect with Congress may cost Democrats in 2014.

The Associated Press

Politics is personal, and Obama is failing to connect with his party.

By + More

The fall midterms are all the talk of the town, with increasing Republican relish and deepening Democratic gloom. 

As for the man in the White House, well, it's only his presidency on the line. President Obama did allow that his party (the Democratic party) wasn't so good at this drill, recalling the tea party House triumph in 2010. But he has not let loose big bucks raised by his own Organizing for Action to support vulnerable Democrats defending their House and Senate seats. As The New York Times reported, that failure is setting off not-so-silent alarms and tensions. There's also a barely concealed fury in Congress that Democrats need their game faces with voters after the miserable debut of Obamacare. 

Obama is trying to get out of the house more. Compared to the last year's listless performance, he looks and sounds more like an actual politician engaged in the art of persuading the public that the minimum wage needs a raise and that they deserve health care reform. Let's give him credit for that, getting caught trying. But he is under serious duress abroad, with a timid foreign policy that fails to inspire fear in, let's say, the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin. Most Americans agree with his wish not to get involved in a military action, but also wish he played a more muscular leading role on the world stage. 

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

"Too Cool for School" was the Barack Obama of 2008. Now he is floundering for a more substantial image, with more gravitas. President Lincoln was 52 when he was sworn in, the same age Obama is now.

Sigh. It may be too little, too late. We Americans ask and expect a lot from our presidents. They must be wise, kind, tough, over six feet tall -- and likable. That last trait is very important to Americans, much more so than it is for our Western European allies. Nobody wished to have a beer with Margaret Thatcher, but the Brits sure respected her. In a moment that got magnified, Obama had a bit of trouble spelling the word recently. That was not too cool for school. 

Come on, game on! Obama needs the luck of the Irish and then some to rebound from a serious slump that could last his whole second term. The Senate could turn red overnight and if it does, his presidency will be painful to watch. Oh, he tried to befriend Speaker John Boehner and the House Republicans when they came to power in 2011, but they had no time for the president of the United States. It's just too bad that he didn't try as hard to make friends and allies in his own party on the Hill. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Obama was a senator once, an old Wisconsin friend reminded me over lunch. But he was a senator lite, who didn't get invested in the institution. He didn't study its winds and waves. He didn't revere the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the keeper of its history and customs, because he was either on a book tour or running for president. A few elders came to him, notably the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and gave him his golden endorsement. If Kennedy had lived past 2009, you can be sure Obamacare would not have been such a flop. His death was a terrible blow to the whole Obama idea, because he gave it legislative lift, heft and brio on the Senate floor. 

Campaigning is an individual sport at which Obama excelled. He likes soaring solo at center stage and dislikes listening to other people gives speeches. But here's the thing: Governing is a gritty team sport. That is where his weakness lies. If he's not a team player, how's the solo artist going to do as team captain? 

What it comes down to is this: It's personal. Politics is probably more about personal relationships than any other game on earth. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle tend to be gregarious generalists who look you in the eye with a smile and remember your name. They laugh, tell stories and jokes, and touch each other a lot. The concept of personal space did not get invented in the Capitol's chambers. They are usually fun to hang out with and yes, you can see why most of them get elected. They have the power to make others feel good. 

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

Obama had the political talent to make the nation feel good, in no small part as the anti-George W. Bush. That sweet rush of euphoria at his inauguration, frankly, did not last long in the winter cold. Over five years, it became apparent what the president was not doing (as much as what he was doing). He was not making friends and influencing people in his own party. He was not counting votes or talking legislative strategy. He was not hurting his enemies. If anything, he had too much faith in his own charm to win over his enemies. Was that a fatal flaw? 

Fellow Democrats need to believe the president has their back and will contribute some cash to their races. They need to know he cares deeply about the outcome of the 2014 midterms. This town loves a winner, and they need to feel he will help them on the hustings. None of that is true right now.

Consider how soft Obama's Washington chops were. He served in the Senate for a few years. Cultivating relationships in the world's most powerful club, is what most -- not all -- senators do. Obama swam in the minimalistic school of thought and would have phoned in votes if he could. "Shoot.me.now," a note he sent to an aide during a committee hearing, sums it up rather well. 

No, he's not a king or a prince, but the American president is too remote and removed from the people -- and I mean the people elected to represent the people.