There has been a strange turn of events in the last few weeks as we have learned more about the political and personal isolation the president has created for himself. In Bob Woodward’s latest book, The Price of Politics, Woodward describes a president antagonistic to his opponents to a toxic degree, one who has distanced himself even from his own party leadership. Woodward describes a “monumental communications gap” between the president and House Majority Leader John Boehner at the critical moment in the 2010 budget negotiations.
Last week, the New York Times ran an article regarding the president’s response to the Arab Spring in which he is described as having distanced himself from Arab and Middle Eastern rulers and leaders, engaging them through intermediaries and with minimal direct contact. This is especially strange in view of his attempt to engage the Islamic world when he spoke at Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2009.
That he did not consult with any of those leaders prior to pulling the rug out from under Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011 sent our relations to the Gulf states into the freezer.
We were told early on in the Obama administration that the president had surrounded himself with a highly loyal cadre and at the same time we have seen an unprecedented number of czars reporting directly to the president and subverting the normal communications channels.
His complete disengagement with the opposition in Congress is also an established fact. But when you are not talking to your own people — that becomes a real problem. This includes his various and sundry cabinet members and advisers as well. Obama’s truancy at national security meetings is legendary.
Wednesday night, in the first debate, we once again saw a disengaged president. He was ill-prepared, disjointed, and quite obviously off his game. Prior to the debate, the party spinners were out in force reducing expectations, but it is generally agreed that the first debate was a disaster for the president.
The president is more comfortable, it seems, campaigning and schmoozing. Neither requires real engagement, and speaking to worshipful audiences roaring their approval is a great salve to the ego.
The country has at different times had a number of presidents who have for reasons of health been unable to completely fulfill their obligations. Woodrow Wilson after his stroke and Ronald Reagan in the latter half of his second term come to mind. At a critical time in his administration, Wilson was unable to campaign for his greatest program, the League of Nations, or for a less onerous treaty with Germany after World War I.
But President Obama is a man in the full flower of life, at an age when his achievements could have been herculean. Instead, as Mr. Romney pointed out during the debate, he placed all of his prestige and wasted his political capital on a highly unpopular health care bill that stands as one of the most imperfect pieces of legislation in our history.
The one thing a president has is access to the most remarkable set of advisers and data in the history of our planet. And yet with all of these tools at his disposal, Obama has made a conscious decision to be remote and to go it alone.
Mr. Obama himself argued for the Lincolnian “team of rivals” when he formed his own cabinet and yet has done more end-runs around his Cabinet than any of his predecessors.
The presidency is the loneliest job in the world. It all comes down to one man’s decision. But to isolate oneself as this president has done is to create an echo chamber where decisions are made in a vacuum. This is a very dangerous thing. Consensus and consent are critical to any major decision, and while the president’s party has marched in lockstep, very little has been accomplished because of the polarization that originates at the top.
It’s not just about policy. It is also about the ability to do the job effectively, and in this, the president has failed.