As leader of the free world, Obama is a loner at the top

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 23, 2012 

— Barack Obama hits the exit early at glitzy fundraisers with rock stars. He makes only brief small talk in a roomful of supporters or at a rope line. He rarely rewards a supporter, donor or lawmaker with a game of golf, a drink at the White House or a trip to the presidential retreat at Camp David.

Instead, the 44th president of the United States keeps to his close circle of friends and advisers, rarely straying outside those comfortable confines to schmooze at parties, on Capitol Hill or on K Street.

He is, by his own admission, a loner.

Critics – and even some supporters – attribute Obama’s failure to achieve all that he promised in nearly four years, first with a Congress controlled by his party and later with a sharply divided one, to his detached personality.

He’s been unable to implement permanent tax cuts for the middle class, overhaul the immigration system or significantly reduce the ever-growing budget deficit. His achievements, such as passing a federal health care overhaul and a stimulus package designed to boost the economy, came with little or no Republican support.

Obama isn’t one to lobby members of Congress on his proposals. When the government was on the verge of running out of money to pay its bills last year, he took a seat at the table to talk about raising the debt ceiling. His ally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked him to leave the White House meeting after realizing that congressional leaders would be better off hashing out a deal without him, according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.

Privately, Democrats on Capitol Hill grumble that they rarely have heard from Obama since he was sworn into office in January 2009, though publicly they downplay problems.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., one of Obama’s biggest surrogates in the Hispanic community, acknowledged that other presidents have done more networking over drinks or dinner, but he said he didn’t fault Obama for preferring to spend time at home with his family.

“The president decides to read to his daughters, and have dinner with his wife and daughters, instead of maybe go have drinks with senators or House members,” he said.

But Obama, who brought together new voters and a new coalition of supporters to achieve his historic election in 2008, has struggled to keep those supporters after four years without any access.

Neera Tanden, former domestic policy director for Obama’s campaign who now runs the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research center in Washington, likened the president’s relationship to politics as “Bill Gates without liking computers” in a recent interview in New York magazine.

“The truth is, Obama doesn’t call anyone, and he’s not close to almost anyone,” she said. “It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people.” She later apologized for her bluntness.

The White House and the Obama campaign declined to comment for this story.

In June, when the Pew Research Center asked voters which presidential candidate could work with other parties, the answer was overwhelming: 52 percent for Obama, 35 percent for Republican Mitt Romney. By October, after the first debate, it was essentially even: 45 percent to 42 percent.

With a federal government often paralyzed by gridlock, Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, said, “There’s a lot of desire for that.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he was “moved” to be invited to the White House three days after Obama’s inauguration to meet with the new president and vice president as well as Cabinet members. But, he said, that was the beginning and the end of the White House’s attempts to reach out to him. He said he’d been invited to the White House with other senators from time to time, but usually after a decision or policy, such as the health care bill, already had been finalized.

Hatch said he personally liked Obama, but the senator called this administration the “most disrespectful and hostile to Congress” in his nearly four decades in Washington. “I think it’s his personality,” he said. “You can’t do these things without Congress.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., memorably hung up on Obama when he called to introduce himself just after his election. (She didn’t believe that it was him, and he convinced her only after the third time.) But Ros-Lehtinen, who was then the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, became hopeful that they could forge a relationship.

“I thought he was going to have excellent relations with members of Congress if he was calling little old me,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Little did I know that that was going to be as good as it gets.”

Obama and Ros-Lehtinen share views on a number of issues, including support for the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally, and for repealing a federal law that doesn’t recognize gay marriage. But she said subsequent interactions with the president left her with the feeling that he “didn’t place much value on reaching out to members of Congress.”

“He doesn’t want to take the time to deal with the legislative process,” she said. “I’m not saying I feel slighted, I’m saying he missed an opportunity for all of Congress. . . . On many issues there were opportunities, but he showed no patience for meeting people halfway.”

Obama’s closest allies say it’s been difficult to work with Republicans since Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” That statement came nearly two years into Obama’s term.

“I go to work there every day, and when you face 382 Republican filibusters, which is what we faced over the past six years, before Obama and since his arrival, it is hard to say that they’re just waiting for an invitation to tea to treat us more nicely,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

“Having Cantor and McConnell over for cocktails once a week wouldn’t have made a difference,’’ agreed Bill Burton, a former Obama staffer who works for Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama “super” PAC. He was referring to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

There’s no reason to think, experts say, that Obama will change in a second term if he’s re-elected next month.

In his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama said he saw other people as an “unnecessary distraction” and that even as a young man he avoided groups.

He was raised in the United States and Indonesia by his mother and his grandparents after his father moved away and his parents divorced.

“If the talk began to wander, or cross the border into familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself,” he wrote. “I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew.”

In Washington, Obama mostly avoids parties and restaurants, except for occasional date nights with his wife or, recently, small dinners with campaign volunteers and contest winners. He hasn’t joined a church, though several tried to woo the first family. He relaxes by playing golf, but usually with the same young aides.

He hosts the requisite parties at the White House, though not always with much enthusiasm: Artist Chuck Close said in a Sept. 12 New Yorker article that he was told he had eight minutes to photograph Obama for a portrait he was painting. Instead, Close said, the president complied happily for more than hour, despite pleas from his aides that he needed to leave.

“Finally,” Close told the magazine, “he said that there was a picnic for Congress in the White House backyard.”

Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political science professor who studies the presidency and keeps detailed records of Obama’s news media interactions, said Obama might have been a loner from the start. She noted that’s unlikely to change as time alone and with family becomes even more rare in the glare of the office.

“Obama may be a loner in terms of his web of Washington relationships, but remember he was not here that long before he came into office,’’ she said. “The White House is no place to make friends. People want things from you, and you cannot rely on them to act in the interest of anyone other than themselves.”

Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president, was nothing like Obama. He spoke to everyone in a room, called lawmakers personally and rewarded donors with invitations to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom. More recently, Republican George W. Bush, who liked heading to bed early, wasn’t especially fond of schmoozing either, though he was known for bestowing nicknames on lawmakers and aides, and an affinity for wooing people over one-on-one conversations.

A former constitutional law professor, Obama appears to prefer policy over politics, even as he wields a fiercely competitive spirit.

Those who know him say he’s more comfortable listening to advisers and reading briefing books before relying on a small core group to help him make decisions. The advisers are mostly transplants who moved from Chicago with him and former Clinton aides, including Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, who runs Obama’s re-election campaign from Chicago. On the night of the second presidential debate, as the pressure was on for the president to boost his performance, he turned to longtime friends – Mike Ramos, a businessman and friend from Hawaii, and Marty Nesbitt, the head of a real estate investment company in Chicago.

“Anybody who reaches the height of the presidency has a close group of people to rely on,” Burton said.

Obama prefers to leave the schmoozing to Vice President Joe Biden, a former senator with a knack for networking, or more recently Clinton, after the two repaired what had been a testy relationship during the Democratic primary campaign in 2008.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a top Obama surrogate, described the president as focused: He’s usually all business, with not a lot of small talk.

“As he should, he’s focused on the issues,” Van Hollen said. “When you’re talking to the president you’re getting down to business.”

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com, lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01, @lesleyclark

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