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Obama's lonely presidency

Posted: October 13, 2011 5:45 p.m.
Updated: October 14, 2011 5:00 a.m.

News media depict presidencies as long-running soap operas. The story doesn’t end, but it goes through changes.

In this, President Barack Obama’s autumn of discontent, a new and potentially disastrous media narrative is emerging about him: he’s the kind of liberal who loves humanity but hates people.

Such was the subtext of a stinging full-page essay that has political junkies all abuzz. Headlined “The Loner President,” the essay by White House correspondent Scott Wilson in Sunday’s Washington Post says Obama has a “people problem.”

“This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors,” Wilson observes. “His relationship with Democrats on Capitol Hill is frosty, to be generous. Personal lobbying on behalf of legislation? He prefers to leave that to Vice President Biden, an old-school political charmer.”

Of course, it is fair to ask: is that a bad thing? After all, it is fair to say, Obama was elected by voters who sounded a lot like today’s Republican primary voters do. They wanted an outsider to Washington, a new face who was not part of the back-slapping, glad-handing, noddin’-and-winkin’ and donor-coddling Washington insider establishment.

But, oh, what a difference a bad economy and a stubborn congressional opposition can make. Many Obama supporters who were looking for a return of John F. Kennedy’s charisma now wish they had another Lyndon B. Johnson, a tough-minded, back-slapping arm-twister. Hey, he got things done.

Most damaging to Obama’s narrative is Wilson’s depiction of the “No-Drama Obama” we all know as a 9-to-5 president. That’s unlike, say, Bill Clinton, whose former senior advisor Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, is quoted as remembering Clinton lobbying lawmakers at 3 a.m. to secure passage of his crime bill. “After hours, Obama prefers his briefing book and Internet browser,” Wilson writes, “a solitary preparation he undertakes each night after Sasha and Malia go to bed.” Of course, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were not midnight oil burners, either, but that’s probably not a comparison that Obama welcomes.

Sure, Obama barnstormed the country, pitching his American Jobs Act, casting himself once again as a man alone against the Grand Old Party’s stubborn congressional leaders. But to put real pressure on the House Republican majority, he needs the Senate to pass some version of the bill. Unfortunately, his political capital on Capitol Hill is running out as lawmakers face reelection races of their own.

And some of Obama’s allies in the Congressional Black Caucus and the left-progressive activist communities continue to grumble that he’s treating them like a stand-by date -- a reliable companion for Saturday night, only to be forgotten for the rest of the week.

Left-progressive activists, including his former White House green jobs advisor Van Jones, hardly mentioned Obama’s name at their Take Back the American Dream Conference, an annual gathering of liberal activists in Washington. Obamamania has dimmed as Obama, in the words of one activist leader, has become “too cautious” and “pre-compromised.”

However, before Obama’s rivals on the political right become too gleeful over his political misfortunes, they should take his tale as a cautionary note about presidential campaigns in both parties: the qualities that look most attractive in a presidential candidate can prove to be disastrous in a president.

We loved Bill Clinton’s jolly, freewheeling charm and lust for life -- before those qualities looked in the White House like a serious lack of discipline and organization, costly to the power and majesty of his office.

And we similarly were wooed by candidate George W. Bush’s folksy, straightforward and resolute certainty. But after debacles like Hurricane Katrina and Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, his reassuring certainty looked like old-fashioned, irrational stubbornness.

We think we’re voting for candidates, but we’re really voting for narratives, the grand epic presidential story that we hope will come true. President Barack Obama offers us yet another case of a winner whose narrative is turned unfavorably on its head by his presidency. He has a year to turn his story around or, at least, to hope his opponent spins a narrative that sounds even worse.

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