Jonathan Alter writes that President Obama’s cold, aloof reputation is undeserved. The president likes people, but he doesn’t like political schmoozing. (More)

The Center Holds, Part II: The Schmooze Gene

This week Morning Feature looks at Jonathan Alter’s new book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. Yesterday we began with the president’s enemies and what Alter calls “Obama Derangement Syndrome.” Today we see how President Obama’s introversion, and some miscalculations, added to his challenges. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with how the Obama campaign built and carried a winning message to hold America’s center and block radical conservatism in 2012.

Jonathan Alter is an award-winning author, reporter, columnist and television analyst. The Center Holds is his third New York Times bestseller, along with The Promise: President Obama, Year One (2010) and The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2006). He spent 28 years at Newsweek, where he was a longtime senior editor and columnist, and also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. Since 1996 he has been a frequent analyst and contributor on NBC News and MSNBC.

“Surprisingly good at the hard things … bad at the easy things”

President Obama’s reputation for being cold and aloof has been a frequent topic of conversation. As Alter writes:

By 2011 Obama’s failure to reach out was hurting him inside the Democratic Party, where donors, elected officials, and party activists soon made insularity their single most frequent criticism of his presidency. Democratic senators who voted with Obama found that their support was taken for granted. Many would go two or even three years between conversations with the president, which embarrassed them (constituents were always asking about their interactions) and eventually weakened Obama’s support on the Hill.

President Obama developed only a few close relationships in Congress, most notably with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker and then House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Most of the other senators, not to mention House members, were rarely invited to the White House for anything except big parties. This included powerful committee chairs who might have helped the president on legislation. By late 2012 many members of Obama’s Cabinet had gone six months or a year without speaking personally to the boss. Not once in the first term did the Obamas invite Bill and Hillary Clinton over for dinner in the residence.

Former President Clinton, a natural political schmoozer, found that puzzling.

He thought [Obama] was surprisingly good at the hard things, like foreign policy, and surprisingly bad at the easy things, like connecting to more than ten people and making them feel as if he liked them.

“Just a relatively normal person”

Yet President Obama had a very different reputation outside Beltway power circles. Ordinary Americans who met him found the president charming and gracious, and he enjoyed talking to people – especially children – whose perspectives and insights could surprise and teach him. As Alter writes:

Obama wasn’t a loner, just a relatively normal person – warm with his friends – who preferred not to hang out too much with people he barely knew. This was a fine quality in an individual but problematic for a president.

President Obama is, simply, an introvert who lacks what Alter calls “the schmooze gene.” Alter speculates that President Obama’s childhood played a role:

Politics self-selects for certain traits, the most common of which is an essential neediness, an emotional hole many politicians are trying to fill that makes them crave attention, thrive on the artificial calories provided by superficial relationships, and make the personal sacrifices necessary for public life. Obama’s childhood in Hawaii was marked by a peculiar combination of abandonment and unconditional love. It bred self-reliance and security. By the time he left Chicago for Harvard in 1988, he had the ambition and willingness to sacrifice that is standard equipment in politicians, but he lacked the neediness that is usually part of the package.

“They have two pictures with me. Why do they need three?”

The result was a failure to use presidential perks to build political bridges. President Obama gave out pens at signing ceremonies, but he rarely invited Beltway insiders to dinner in the residence. He played golf and poker with friends to relax, not with other leaders to lubricate working relationships. His staff typed notes to VIPs that President Obama then rewrote by hand, not understanding why a handwritten letter should matter. “He fundamentally doesn’t relate to their impact,” Alter quotes former chief of staff Pete Rouse saying, “because he wouldn’t particularly care if he got one.”

Privately, President Obama wondered aloud about demands for schmoozing:

During the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, [Harry] Reid made up a list of Democratic senators for the president to call. Obama dutifully worked his wah through the list but complained to his staff the entire time. Why do these guys need this? Are they so insecure that they can only function if they get to tell people “Hey, the president called me!”? When the purpose of a specific call was explained to him, he was fine with it, but if he were asked to call five members of Congress a week just to stay in touch, he wouldn’t comply. The plain fact, one of his senior aides said, was that he simply didn’t like phone calls and notes: “He fundamentally doesn’t understand how important it is. It’s not in his DNA. He’d rather go exercise for another half-hour than bullshit with a member on the phone.”

Obama didn’t intuitively understand the ego gratification that association with a president provided. “They have two pictures with me. Why do they need three?”

“He came up so fast that he’d never built a big one”

President Obama arrived on the national stage with his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where he rejected the notion of “red states and blue states” in favor of a unifying vision based on shared values. During the 2008 campaign, friends talked about how he helped bridge disagreements as president of the Harvard Law Review, and worked across party lines in the Illinois legislature.

Those stories were true, and Alter writes that President Obama sincerely believed he could do the same thing in the White House. In his 2009 Inaugural Address, he spoke of “putting aside petty differences” and working together to rebuild America. But as Alter writes, President Obama grossly underestimated the disagreements he would meet in Washington:

Bargaining was in the background of most of Obama’s predecessors. Eisenhower learned to negotiate with balky allies during the Second World War, and Reagan gained bargaining experience as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Unlike Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, Obama had never been a governor herding state legislators, and his experience closing deals with Republicans in the Illinois State Senate and the U.S. Senate was minimal. […] In Democratic Chicago he rarely had to talk to people who fundamentally disagreed with him. His self-image was that of a bridge-builder, but he came up so fast that he’d never built a big one.

Alter suggests this led to missteps in 2011 that nearly crippled President Obama’s chances for reelection. President Obama accepted an incomplete deal to avoid a government shutdown in the spring, in part, because he didn’t believe Republicans would play chicken with the global economy that summer over the debt ceiling.

But they did, and those negotiations revealed his inexperience. Speaker John Boehner thought they were near a “grand bargain” when, citing the Simpson-Bowles Commission, President Obama said the deal’s new revenue should double from $400 to $800 billion. Although the president returned to the $400 billion figure a few days later, Speaker Boehner balked. What the president offered as a trial balloon, the speaker and other House Republicans saw as jacking up the terms when a deal was almost final.

Still, Alter notes that deal was never likely to pass. Many House freshmen rejected the idea of a 10-year deficit reduction window, demanding to know why it couldn’t be done in just two. They refused to understand, or did not care, that it was simply impossible to slice the federal budget in half – and cut $4 trillion from a $14 trillion U.S. economy – without triggering a Depression.

The debt ceiling crisis and the summer of 2011 was the lowest point of President Obama’s first term. His approval ratings dropped into the low 40s and, briefly, into the 30s. Many Americans blamed the president when Standard & Poors downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time in history. President Obama’s housing plans had failed to slow the foreclosure crisis, and unemployment remained stubbornly high.

That summer, the White House seemed almost a shoe-in for Republicans in 2012. Yet behind the scenes, the Obama campaign were building a political machine unlike any in history.


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