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Has Obama Become a Publicist for His Own Presidency?

The President, whose approval ratings hover over 40 percent, has a unique method of political maneuvering that sets him apart from his predecessors.

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 11:32 AM EDT

Civil Dissociation

By the middle of 2009, Barack Obama was no longer listening. He had already picked an economic team from among the Wall Street protégés of the Goldman Sachs executive and former economic adviser to the Clinton administration, Robert Rubin. For such a team, job creation and environmental regulation were scarcely attractive ideas. When the new president chose health care as the first "big thing" he looked to achieve, and announced that, for the sake of bipartisan consensus, he was leaving the details of the legislation to five committees of Congress, his "I can't hear you" had become a transparent absurdity.

The movements had never been consulted. Yet Obama presumed an intimacy with their concerns and a reliance on their loyalty—as if a telepathic link with them persisted. There was a ludicrous moment in the late summer of 2009 when the president, in a message to followers of "Obama for America," told us to be ready to knock on doors and light a fire under the campaign for health-care reform. But what exactly were we to say when those doors opened? The law—still being hammered out in congressional committees in consultation with insurance lobbyists—had not yet reached his desk. In the end, Obama did ask for help from the movements, but it was too late. He had left them hanging while he himself waited for the single Republican vote that would make his "signature law" bipartisan. That vote never came.

The proposal, the handoff to Congress, and the final synthesis of the Affordable Care Act took up an astounding proportion of Obama's first year in office. If one looks back at the rest of those early months, they contained large promises—the closing of Guantanamo being the earliest and the soonest to be shelved. The most seductive promise went by the generic name "transparency." But Obama's has turned out to be the most secretive administration since that of Richard Nixon; and in its discouragement of press freedom by the prosecution of whistleblowers, it has surpassed all of its predecessors combined.

In the absence of a performance to match his promises, how did Obama seek to define his presidency? The compensation for "I can't hear you" turned out to be that all Americans would now have plenty of chances to hear him. His first months in office were staged as a relaxed but careful exercise in, as was said at the time, "letting the country get to know him." To what end? The hope seemed to be that if people could see how truly earnest, temperate, patient, thoughtful, and bipartisan Obama was, they would come to accept policies that sheer ideology or ignorance might otherwise have led them to doubt or reject.

It was magical thinking of course—that Americans would follow if only we heard him often enough; that people of the most divergent tempers and ideas would gradually come to approve of him so visibly that he could afford to show the country that he heard the call for reform. But one can see why his presidency was infused with such magical thinking from the start. His ascent to the Oval Office had itself been magical.

To be known as the voice of the country, Obama believed, meant that he should be heard to speak on all subjects. This misconception, evident early, has never lost its hold on the Obama White House. The CBS reporter Mark Knoller crunched the first-term numbers, and some of them are staggering. Between January 2009 and January 2013 Obama visited 44 states, led 58 town hall meetings, granted 591 media interviews (including 104 on the major networks), and delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks. From all those planned interactions with the American public, remarkably few conversions ever materialized.

By following the compulsion (which he mistook for a strategy) of coming to be recognized as the tribune of all the people, Obama squandered indefinite energies in pursuit of a finite opportunity. For there is an economy of gesture in politics, just as there is in sports. Show all your moves too early and there will be no surprise when the pressure is on. Talk steadily on all subjects and a necessary intensity will desert you when you need it.

In Confidence Men, the most valuable study so far of the character and performance of Obama as president, the journalist Ron Suskind noticed the tenacity of the new president's belief that he enjoyed a special connection to the American people. When his poll numbers were going down in late 2009, or when his "pivot to jobs" had become a topic of humor because he repeated the phrase so often without ever seeming to pivot, Obama would always ask his handlers to send him out on the road. He was convinced: the people would hear him and he would make them understand.

He sustained this free-floating confidence even though he knew that his town halls, from their arranged format to their pre-screened audiences, were as thoroughly stage-managed as any other politician's. But Obama told Suskind in early 2011 that he had come to believe "symbols and gestures... are at least as important as the policies we put forward."

The road trips have proved never-ending. In 2014, a run of three or four days typically included stops at a supermarket outlet, a small factory, and a steel mill, as the president comforted the unemployed with sayings such as "America needs a raise" and repeated phrases from his State of the Union address such as "Let's make this a year of action" and "Opportunity is who we are."

In discussions about Obama, one occasionally hears it said—in a mood between bewilderment and forbearance—that we have not yet known the man. After all, he has been up against the enormous obstacle of racism, an insensate Republican party, and a legacy of bad wars. It is true that he has faced enormous obstacles. It is no less true that by postponement and indecision, by silence and by speaking on both sides, he has allowed the obstacles to grow larger. Consider his "all of the above" energy policy, which impartially embraces deep-sea drilling, wind farms, solar panels, Arctic drilling, nuclear plants, fracking for natural gas, and "clean coal."

Obama's practice of recessive management to the point of neglect has also thrown up obstacles entirely of his devising. He chose to entrust the execution and "rollout" of his health-care policy to the Department of Health and Human Services. That was an elective plan which he himself picked from all the alternatives. The extreme paucity of his meetings with his secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, in the three years that elapsed between his signing of the law and the rollout of the policy makes a fair epitome of negligence. Indeed, the revelation of his lack of contact with Sebelius left an impression—which the recent provocative actions of the State Department in Ukraine have reinforced—that the president is not much interested in what the officials in his departments and agencies are up to.

The Preferential President

Obama entered the presidency at 47—an age at which people as a rule are pretty much what they are going to be. It is a piece of mystification to suppose that we have been denied a rescue that this man, under happier circumstances, would have been well equipped to perform. There have been a few genuine shocks: on domestic issues he has proven a more complacent technocrat than anyone could have imagined—a facet of his character that has emerged in his support for the foundation-driven testing regimen "Race to the Top," with its reliance on outsourcing education to private firms and charter schools. But the truth is that Obama's convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.

Perhaps the thin connection between Obama's words and his actions does not support the use of the word "conviction" at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions—and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in "this war we're in" (which he declines to call "the war on terror") was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama's belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.

More than most people, Obama has been a creature of his successive environments. He talked like Hyde Park when in Hyde Park. He talks like Citigroup when at the table with Citigroup. And in either milieu, he likes the company well enough and enjoys blending in. He has a horror of unsuccess. Hence, in part, his extraordinary aversion to the name, presence, or precedent of former president Jimmy Carter: the one politician of obvious distinction whom he has declined to consult on any matter. At some level, Obama must realize that Carter actually earned his Nobel Prize and was a hard-working leader of the country. Yet of all the living presidents, Carter is the one whom the political establishment wrote off long ago; and so it is Carter whom he must not touch.

As an adapter to the thinking of men of power, Obama was a quick study. It took him less than half a year as president to subscribe to Dick Cheney's view on the need for the constant surveillance of all Americans. This had to be done for the sake of our own safety in a war without a visible end. The leading consideration here is that Obama, quite as much as George W. Bush, wants to be seen as having done everything possible to avoid the "next 9/11." He cares far less about doing everything possible to uphold the Constitution (a word that seldom occurs in his speeches or writings). Nevertheless, if you ask him, he will be happy to declare his preference for a return to the state of civil liberties we enjoyed in the pre-2001 era. In the same way, he will order drone killings in secret and then give a speech in which he informs us that eventually this kind of killing must stop.

What, then, of Obama's commitment in 2008 to make the fight against global warming a primary concern of his presidency? He has come to think American global dominance—helped by American capital investment in foreign countries, "democracy promotion," secret missions by Special Operations forces, and the control of cyberspace and outer space—as the best state of things for the United States and for the world. We are, as he has told us often, the exceptional country. And time that is spent helping America to dominate the world is time that cannot be given to a cooperative venture like the fight against global warming. The Keystone XL pipeline, if it is built, will bring carbon-dense tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast, and probably Obama would prefer not to see the pipeline built. Yet it would be entirely in character for him to approve and justify its construction, whether in the name of temporary jobs, oil industry profits, trade relations with Canada, or all of the above.

He has already softened the appearance of surrender by a device that is in equal parts real and rhetorical. It is called the Climate Resilience Fund: a euphemism with all the Obama markings, since resilience is just another name for disaster relief. The hard judgment of posterity may be that in addressing the greatest threat of the age, Barack Obama taught America dimly, worked part time at half-measures, was silent for years at a stretch, and never tried to lead. His hope must be that his reiterated preference will count more heavily than his positive acts.

David Bromwich has written on civil liberties and America's wars for the New York Review of Books and the Huffington Post. A collection of his essays, Moral Imagination, will be published this spring by Princeton University Press.

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