Few things prepare an individual for president of the United States (POTUS). Hence, for many who enter the White House, it can take most of the first term to get comfortable with being leader of the free world.
Living when history is being made doesn’t always permit the observer the objectivity and perspective that time provides. President, for example, has been criticized for the nation’s historic and massive deficits. Yet, he entered office at the time of costly military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Congress didn’t finance them in a pay-as-you-go manner. Nor did the economy’s near collapse thanks to the banking industry, which drove up unemployment payouts while causing a drop in tax revenue, help the situation.
There are, however, some avoidable missteps the president must take ownership of, stemming from his personal style. He’s perceived as aloof, disengaged and someone who doesn’t want to negotiate. The Washington press corps has noted on numerous occasions how little he plays golf with members of Congress, how rarely less senior US House members are invited to the White House and how distant he is when senior members are invited to watch a football game with him. The perception may have some truth to it, but there’s a lot more going on.
Obama is a cerebral, reflective intellectual with a professorial temperament. It’s a personality that doesn’t always lend itself to legislative compromise, a process which is often amoral or intellectually dishonest.
Sadly, expecting all members of Congress to do what’s right for the nation’s sake doesn’t occur with regularity. Egos need to be stroked. It’s a necessary part of the process. Securing a vote for one piece of legislation in exchange for support on something else is part of negotiating. Miscommunication, personality conflicts and professional distrust sometimes have more to do with derailing good legislation than a bill’s substance.
There are also very powerful congressional leaders who are politically shrewd and perhaps ruthless but don’t come with Obama's culture or education. Like it or not, it requires a highly educated, intuitively bright man to go to them with patience, humility and biting his lip while attempting to smile warmly the whole time. This seems counterintuitive to the president.
It’s romantic, or at the very least unrealistic, to think politics is only about good ideas and problem-solving. Too often ideas and solutions are secondary. Ultimately, it’s about people in positions of power who like to be told they are very important. It’s human nature.
“Playing the game” better is the personal challenge the president must overcome in his second term. It won’t be easy. Nor will it occur without making a conscious effort each time there is major legislation needing bipartisan support. Being a cerebral, deeply reflective man can be an obstacle to deal-making. Ironically, it also can be an asset, and Obama has the ability to turn it into one. But he'll have to work at it.
Paul Jesep is an attorney, policy analyst, and author of Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically.