Commentary Magazine


Obama Still Doesn’t Get It

In a CNN interview two years ago, Allen West shared a piece of advice his father gave him: “Never read your own press and never drink your own tub water.” That advice–well, the first half, anyway–is popular among athletes and other celebrities. And it’s advice President Obama clearly doesn’t take–but perhaps should. Both the New York Times and National Journal’s Ron Fournier report today that Obama’s advisors are openly admitting that the president’s outreach to Republicans is a sham, mostly because he thinks reporters aren’t smart enough to know when they’re being played–though the story of the Obama presidency really indicates they know very well, and are simply happy to be part of Obama’s life in some way.

Critics of the Obama administration have long noted the incongruity of the president’s relationship with the political press: they adore him and he loathes them with every fiber of his being. This may not appear to be hurting the president, because the press still mostly plays along, but in fact it is starting to take its toll on Obama. Because he obsessively reads his own press, he is too wrapped up in pretending to do things to actually do them. As Fournier reports:

“This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours,” complained a senior White House official who was promised anonymity so he could speak frankly. “I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you.”

Another said the president was sincerely trying to find common ground with stubborn Republicans. “But if we do it,” the aide hastened, “it won’t be because we had steaks and Merlot with a few senators.”

Fair enough. And the Times adds:

Aides say Mr. Obama will continue his outreach even if the phone calls and other overtures can “feel fake to him,” in the words of one associate. The president signaled as much in his January news conference.

“Now that my girls are getting older, they don’t want to spend that much time with me anyway,” Mr. Obama said. “So,” he added, “maybe a whole bunch of members of the House Republican caucus want to come over and socialize more.”

Obama can be forgiven for preferring his kids to congressional Republicans, certainly. He has earned his reputation as a good father and a family man. But he and his advisors probably shouldn’t go around telling the media how much he hates bipartisan negotiations and having to be nice to other politicians. (Civility, and all that.)

But even more so, he should stop reading his press–cold turkey–because it is warping his view of his political predicament. It’s true that the political press can tend to focus on trivial and superficial elements of politics to the exclusion of substance–but it’s not like the president hasn’t been the primary beneficiary of this. (Does everyone remember the astronomically absurd “team of rivals” narrative?)

As Jonathan wrote last week, the fact that Obama is even superficially signaling that he’s ready to listen to Republicans is evidence of the GOP’s strength. House Republicans cannot govern from that one house of Congress, as Jonathan noted, and Obama and the Democrats still have the upper hand. But the public has grown weary of Obama’s dire predictions every time Republicans won’t simply pass legislation that meets his demands. It further undercuts Obama’s argument that the president approaches supposed fiscal emergencies by tossing out take-it-or-leave-it offers he knows Republicans can’t accept. And his credibility disintegrates even more when his prophecies of doom don’t come true.

In other words, the president got himself into this mess, not the media. He isn’t pretending to work with Republicans because White House reporters are goading him into it. He’s pretending to work with Republicans because the circumstances require him to actually work with Republicans. Until that message gets through, the bill for steaks and Merlot are all the president is going to have to show for this political theater.