President Obama has shrunk his own presidency. Not with his defeatist rhetoric, poor interpersonal skills, or community organizer tactics, but through his repeated rejection of the institutional stature of the executive.
Make no mistake: Barack Obama is President of the United States. Yet through symbol and deed, Obama has distanced himself from the institution of the presidency, and the presence of that office that is greater than any man or woman who has or will ever occupy it.
In a deliberate effort to personalize the presidency and attach himself to the office, he has eschewed some of the traditions that help to insulate presidents from criticism.
Aside from shunning a Rose Garden strategy in 2012 and giving up on governance in 2013, Obama has only rarely appeared with members of his cabinet when he's announcing policy initiatives or signing legislation. He is the executive branch.
Incongruously, however, his staff regularly feels the need to include a place card for the president when he's in meetings with his own administrators. It's an odd juxtaposition, which suggests that Obama harbors insecurities about his leadership position.
His seeming tentativeness reveals itself in other odd moments. He runs athletically, rather than walks authoritatively, down the steps of Air Force One and across tarmacs. While it may be that he's hoping to convey the notion that he's more energetic than past presidents, what comes across is that he's uncomfortable with the ceremonial aspect of his travel. Last year, he bizarrely decided to "democratize" the choice of which Thanksgiving turkey would be pardoned, effectively washing his hands of the rather gruesome chore.
More substantively, during his reelection, he explicitly dismissed his privileged position: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside." Sustaining this outlook, he has followed a communications strategy that provides him with plenty of public exposure, but not much in the way of authority. With frequent visits to shows like "The View" and "SportsCenter," he dons more a mantle of celebrity-in-chief than leader of the free world.
In both small and large ways, Obama has demonstrated that he's more comfortable seeking, rather than wielding, presidential power. Instead of growing to fill the suit that is the institution, Obama has tailored the presidency to fit himself. For all of his past high-flying rhetoric about change, Obama doesn't seem to understand that presidential politics is not about transactions, but about transformations.