Obama may dislike politics too much to be a great president
The real estate offices in Palm Springs are buzzing with rumors that the Obama family may be buying a home in Rancho Mirage – a modern-design, 8,232-square-foot compound priced at $4.25 million and perched on a hilltop inside a gated community where Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby once lived. It’s a place where the fairways are close and Congress is far, far away -- just what the president will want when he exits the White House on Jan. 20, 2017.
Actually, there are days when Barack Obama looks as if he’d be happy to move to California and start his post-presidency right away. The man elected in 2008 on a euphoric wave of hope and change has not been able to change much and his hopes have been dashed by a Republican opposition that has been dedicated to one core principle: Whatever Obama wants, Obama doesn’t get.
If Obamacare survives and becomes as permanent and popular as Social Security, it will be the one great achievement of his presidency. Beyond that, however, Obama’s place in history will have far more to do with who he was than with what he did. He is America’s first nonwhite president, something he achieved by being a great campaigner. As yet, though, it is hard to imagine historians will call him a great president.
It may be that he simply does not love the job enough. In that regard, the easiest contrast is with Bill Clinton, a man who, despite the ordeal of impeachment, relished his eight years in office and, if not for the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, would gladly run again. For Clinton, politics is a passion, a sensual and intellectual orgy of bearhugs and handshakes, arm-twisting and arguments, phone calls and fundraising, eye contact and endless conversations. Clinton dives into an adoring campaign crowd like it’s a hot tub and treats a political adversary like one more bimbo he will find a way to charm.
Obama, by comparison, is a loner. Why should he need to spend time stroking the egos of dull-witted congressmen and preening senators? For him, the grit and sweat and glad-handing of politics is an annoyance. In his ideal world, logic and rationality would be enough.
We have had other presidents who were more like Obama than like Clinton -- Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson and James Polk, to name three. None of them were nearly as comfortable in the White House or as popular with the public as the presidents with big, outgoing personalities -- the two Roosevelts being the preeminent examples.
Any day of the week, Obama would prefer an intimate meal with intellectuals rather than drinks with the majority leader, golf with the speaker or a cocktail party in Georgetown. When he was in Rome this month, Obama had the U.S. ambassador pull together a dinner guest list more to his liking: prominent architect Renzo Piano, particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti, Fiat Chairman John Elkann and Elkann’s sister, Ginevra, a film director. According to a New York Times report, the president and his guests were up until midnight, talking about science, sports and “the future of the universe.”
The Rome soiree was not unique. Similar gatherings around the dinner table have apparently become frequent during Obama’s second term. This is hardly a bad thing. It’s a big perk of the presidency to be able to invite notable people to dinner, be sure they will show up and be pretty certain they will not be boring. But in a country where it is said the typical voter prefers a president who seems like a guy with whom he’d want have a beer, we have instead twice elected a man who would rather share a fine Italian wine with highly accomplished people who can talk about big ideas, not petty politics.
Obama could have many such dinners at the big house in Rancho Mirage. I imagine John Boehner and Mitch McConnell will never get an invitation.
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