It’s “back to school” week for President Barack Obama, after what a CNN analyst called “the vacation from Hell.” So perhaps it’s a good time to examine what’s been going wrong for Obama recently and whether he can fix it.
The common complaint of late is that Obama is “disengaged.” This has always been somewhat of an issue, given his reticent public style, but the criticism intensified during his Martha’s Vineyard holiday. It’s an odd critique: Obama works at least as diligently as George W. Bush did during his frequent trips to Texas. Even during this golf-besotted vacation, Obama seemed to spend a good part of most days dealing with crises, foreign and domestic.
Obama could have saved himself some political trouble by scuttling the vacation altogether, but I’m not sure that would have benefited the country, to say nothing of his family.
It’s often suggested that Obama should invite more politicians, such as House Speaker John Boehner, to join his famous golf outings. But would that really help? Even if the two became BFFs on the links, it’s doubtful that Boehner could forge bipartisanship among a House Republican caucus terrified by the tea party.
Certainly Obama could communicate better. But as he has learned, giving speeches and more frequent news conferences doesn’t necessarily move the needle of public support. Six years into his presidency, Obama turns a lot of people off. Even a fine speech (such as his remarks after the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley) can set the stage for a paroxysm about his insensitivity in playing golf afterward. Obama probably thought he was doing the right thing in showing that the president couldn’t be brutalized into changing his routine. It was an understandable decision, but a wrong one.
Obama also has drawn flak for what were seen as dispassionate remarks after the slaying of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri. Again, I suspect Obama was doing what he thought was presidential — trying to speak for all the country. But Ferguson showed how precarious that middle ground can be.
The truth about the disengaged Obama is that he has probably stopped caring what most critics say about his performance. A few months ago, during his Asia trip, he mused aloud during a news conference about complaints that his foreign policy was weak, asking critics such as Sen. John McCain and hawkish editorial writers: What do you want me to do? Repeat the mistakes of the past?
Obama seems to ignore what his detractors think. Part of his detached style comes from the fact that he’s stubborn. He doesn’t like to be jammed, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu learned when he tried to push Obama on Iran policy during a vulnerable period in September 2012, shortly before the presidential election. Obama listens to criticism and then, at a certain point, the switch flips off. He stops shadowboxing with critics.
Obama appears to have reached this tipping point of disinterest in his dealings with Congress. He’s sick of their whining and feuding. As The New York Times reported, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pleaded in June for help in clearing ambassadorial nominations. Obama reportedly dumped the problem back in the lap of Reid and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell, saying: “You and Mitch work it out.”
I suspect Obama is so sick of congressional inaction — and of the bad blood between Reid and McConnell that helped cripple his legislative agenda — that he wants to wash his hands of the mess. Unfortunately, that isn’t really an option for Obama’s remaining two years in office: Disdain isn’t a governing strategy.
Aloofness works for European leaders. Think of Charles de Gaulle or Francois Mitterrand in France, or Angela Merkel in Germany. But America, with its democratic ethos, likes warmer politicians. Even genuine aristocrats such as Franklin D. Roosevelt had to pretend to be common men.
What’s Obama’s plan as he returns to school for fall? Recently, he has seemed to adopt the strategy of a student who’s tired of being bullied: Work hard; make decisions; ignore criticism to the extent possible; hope for new friends and a change of luck.
This careful, passive strategy might be acceptable in a world that was benign and forgiving of mistakes. But to recover in the remaining years of his crisis-plagued presidency, Obama will need to take a riskier, more aggressive approach.
David Ignatius’ writes for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Dana Milbank is on vacation.