Alex Massie

How Good is Barack Obama at Politics?

Text settings

Not as good as you might think, argues Ramesh Ponnuru:

Last year, President Barack Obama issued a warning to Republicans. They had been “politicking” instead of “governing,” he said. “Well, we can politick for three months,” he said. “They forgot I’m pretty good at politicking.”

That was in August 2010. At the end of those three months, Republicans controlled the most seats in the U.S. House since the 1940s. Republicans did well for a lot of reasons. One of them was that the president is wrong: He isn’t all that good at politics.

[...] But take a closer look at Obama’s rise and a hole in his resume quickly becomes apparent: Obama never had to fight for and win the votes of people who don’t agree with him. Both his biggest political setback and his biggest political accomplishment -- his defeat by Bobby Rush in a 2000 U.S. House primary and his victory over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 -- came during struggles within a liberal universe.

[... Many of Obama’s predecessors had to learn how to appeal to broad electorates before they became president. George W. Bush had to beat an incumbent Democrat to become governor of Texas. Bill Clinton had to market himself in not-so-liberal Arkansas. The two recent presidents who most resemble Obama in not having had to prove themselves in this way are Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Neither is a happy portent, both having lost re-election bids. Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, suspects Obama has been too civil, too conciliatory for his own good.

In my ideal world, the conciliatory, reasonable Obama would have reached some accords with a reasonable, chastened GOP and then fought an election on the future direction of the country. In the actual world, it seems clear that this GOP has shown itself dedicated to the destruction of this presidency and any promise it offered to the country - as well as doubling down in its heart on a repeal of much of the New Deal. The refusal to address any revenues at all as part of a bipartisan fiscal Grand Bargain made that perfectly clear.

[...] After a while, Obama's conciliatory response to a bunch of ideological thugs - especially after they tried to send the country into default - made him look weak and impotent. You can't win an election that way. You can neither rally your base nor look strong to Independents. And you risk looking weak as the economy tanks for lack of demand - as the GOP is clearly hoping for.

But Obama wasn't entirely about restoring reason and civility to the discourse. He was also about changing the country's direction away from the debt and recklessness of the Bush years. He was concerned about the poorest. He was worried about inequality all along. He was a moderately liberal insurgent. Can they both be right? To some degree, yes they can. Obama has been surprised, I suspect, by how reluctant Republicans have been to comprmise with him (though he might also be surprised by how little Republicans think he's been prepared to compromise, especially those conservatives prepared to give the President a hearing. Then again, I also think it daft the opposition is supposed to help incumbants win re-election). And of course not even Andrew gets to live in Andrew Sullivan's ideal world. Still, it is true that Republicans have preferred to win a dollar stymying Obama than five bucks working with him.

But the buck stops, as a wise man used to say, with the President. I think Ponnuru is a little too quick to dismiss the significance of Obama's victory in 2008 and the skill it took to win that triumph. Nevertheless, it's true that circumstances were unusually propoitious for a man of Obama's name and background and it must be posssible that comparable conditions would not have applied in other election years had Obama "waited his turn". So there was skill as well as ruthlessness in grasping the moment.

Even so, where Ponnuru is right, I think, is his suggestion that Obama struggles to understand why anyone would disagree with him. He lacks the empathy the greatest politicians enjoy (politicians here should not be confused with statesmen). He's not a Reagan or a Clinton or a Blair. He is, in some respects, much more normal than any of them. But he is also a product of his environment and that environment has been wholly liberal ever since he was a child.

In a British context, Blair was so much more gifted a politician than Gordon Brown because he grew up in places where it was not automatically assumed that every decent person would be a Labour supporter. Brown and before him John Smith were both modernisers but neither was capable of the intuitive, emotional leaps across partisan boundaries that Blair could make so easily. Individiaul Tories might be just about acceptable (on a limited basis) but fundamentally they were a wicked, deluded tribe to be scorned and looked down upon. Blair never thought like that which is one reason why he was able to communicate with people who voted for Thatcher and Major and would later vote for Cameron.

That was partly a matter of background and partly a matter of political and emotional intelligence. I'm not sure, for all his qualities, Obama possesses those talents as abundantly as Blair or Clinton did. When he talked about "bitter" white voters in small rural towns "clinging" to their bibles and their guns he wasn't just pandering to an audence of San Francisco liberals, he was demonstrating the limits of his worldview and showing, in this particular instance, that whatever empathy he possessed was laced with condescension. It was a meaningful, revealing slip.

So when Obama makes what he considers a useful step towards compromise, I think his opponents often see a President treating them as though they must be cretins (sometimes they may be!). I think what the White House considers constructive engagement others see as arrogant condescension. I think that Obama hasn't found a way to talk to people who were not already predisposed to like him. I think there are times when he seems to be lecturing people, not talking to them. I think this should worry his team as they prepare for next year.

The President remains a formidable campaigner but the old tunes can't work as well as they did in 2008. That doesn't mean he will lose, merely that fewer people are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt this time. And here's the thing of all the things: I think people still want to like Barack Obama but are a little puzzled and even, sometimes, disappointed to discover that actually, all things considered, they don't really like him quite as much as they would like to.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePolitics