As I think about last week’s debate, the thing that most sticks with me was Barack Obama’s body language. Whereas Romney turned to the President and spoke directly to him, Obama didn’t return fire: he spoke to the moderator, Jim Lehrer, and occasionally – but not terribly effectively, I thought – to the camera, that is, to the American people. He frequently looked down at his podium, and perhaps most tellingly, often nodded as Romney was making his accusatory points – almost as if to concede the points his rival was making.
He seemed chastened, downcast. And I got the distinct impression that he didn’t want to be there. That got me to thinking, there’s actually a lot that is required of the President of the United States that Barack Obama, to put it charitably, finds outside his comfort zone.
Start with the prosaic stuff of getting legislation done. From the get-go, Obama has been remarkably passive about formulating an agenda and working it through Congress. Even in the beginning when he had huge majorities in both Houses, the legislation that emerged was the product of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, rather than White House proposals that Congress put into practice. The stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank – all of them were drafted at the other end of the Pennsylvania Avenue.
I think of the master deal-maker, Lyndon Johnson, who knew how to twist arms and get recalcitrant Congressmen to vote for his legislation. Obama, it seems, does none of that. Three times he has sent a budget up to Capital Hill, only to have it soundly rejected by both parties. Mightn’t he have done a little prep-work to try to gin up a warm reception? And when he does get directly engaged, as with the debt ceiling negotiations last year, the results are seldom pretty – or even successful.
Another element in the job description is responsibility for the security of the country. The intelligence services prepare every single day a briefing outlining for the President the latest threats and worries around the world. George W. Bush attended these briefings religiously; Barack Obama has skipped about half of them, preferring to read the reports on his iPad. Evidently, this community organizer, with virtually no experience in the subtleties of foreign policy and security matters, was confident enough in his own powers of analysis that he didn’t feel the need to consult the experts who make themselves available every day.
And while we’re on the subject of foreign policy duties, one might mention the recent gathering of heads of state for the UN General Assembly meeting. For the first time, the newly elected President of Egypt – a major ally in the Middle East, at least officially – is on US soil. The region is erupting with anti-US riots, and President Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been making inflammatory remarks about the West’s duty to suppress free speech for the convenience of the world’s Muslims. It just might be a useful occasion to meet face-to-face, take the measure of the man, make it clear where the US stands on the issues.
Similarly, Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, is in town. Israel is facing possible annihilation if Iran breaks through to a nuclear capability, and realizes that its window for taking military action that might save the country is rapidly narrowing. The US is insisting on patience while sanctions start to bite, and there have been moments of pointed rhetoric between the two allies. This might be a good occasion for a low-key, private-room discussion to reassure and communicate, to make sure both parties are on the same page.
Instead, President Obama takes advantage of his own presence in New York to…go on The View, to yuk it up with a gaggle of ladies on TV. He gets around to talking with Netanyahu a few days later on a twenty-minute phone call.
And then there is the economy, which Obama keeps insisting is his single greatest priority. His high-level Jobs Council, chaired by GE boss Jeffrey Immelt and loaded with other business luminaries, was supposed to be his real-world lifeline into the workings of the economy, coming up with proposals that will work. But with 23,000,000 people out of work, President Obama’s last meeting with this group was – January 17, 2012.
There is one thing that President Obama does seem to like doing, and that is speaking before adoring crowds. Despite the marginal effectiveness sometimes – his forty speeches in support of the Affordable Care Act changed not a single mind on the issue – it’s one venue where you can see a charged up and animated Obama.
And he does it a lot. Not only has he been running for re-election for the last twelve months of his Presidency, he has held far more fund-raisers than any previous President: 100 in the first six months of this year alone. And he shows up on Leno, Conan, and the like, where he is sure to get softball questions and cheers from an adoring audience. Similarly with his interviews: People Magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and lots of local news and radio shows, where the interviewer will be so awestruck that the questions will assuredly be puffballs.
Meanwhile, the last formal White House Press Corps briefing was in January. In fact, the one time the President was on the receiving end of some sharp questions was his recent interview for Telemundo, where they pressed him on his failure to enact immigration reform, and it was cause for some comment among the news community.
This, I think, has harmed Obama. By never facing hostile questions, he hasn’t developed the skills to field them or the ability to think on his feet. I think that was one of the reasons he stumbled so badly last Wednesday.
But the larger question is this – if Barack Obama is so uncomfortable lobbying Congress to get deals done, if he skips half his daily security briefings, if he passes up rare opportunities for face-to-face meetings with critically important foreign leaders, if he avoids uncomfortable questions from the press, is he really cut out to be President?
Perhaps the Obama we saw last week was the real one – the one whose body language was fairly screaming “how much longer do I have to do this?”