I have noted the general dismay among both Republicans (expected) and Democrats (not so much) over the President's aloofness. He doesn't stick around after the photo shoots. He has done very little to cultivate personal relationships with key members of Congress. Allow me to repeat a quote from the New York Times:
This week, for example, Mr. Obama is ensconced in the protective bubble of the Secret Service. With him are his closest outside-the-Beltway-friends, including Eric Whitaker, a Chicago doctor, and two of Mr. Obama's Hawaii friends from Punahou School: Mike Ramos, a businessman, and Robert Titcomb, a commercial fisherman whom Mr. Obama has stuck by despite his arrest in April on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute. Mr. Obama bolted from Washington last Friday barely an hour after he had signed legislation extending the payroll tax cut after a grinding fight with House Republicans whose result is widely viewed as a big win for him. His relationship with Washington insiders is described by members of both parties as "remote," "distant" and "perfunctory."
That seems like a big problem for any presidency. How can a president provide leadership when he is never around? You might think, however, that he cannot be equally aloof within his own administration. You'd be wrong.
Ryan Lizza has a must read piece, "The Obama Memos", in The New Yorker. Lizza is no friend to Republicans and accordingly he strives, with rather limited success, to tell a story of a President frustrated by an intransigent opposition party. However, he is too good a reporter not to tell the much more interesting and disturbing story that he has at his disposal. It concerns the way that Barack Obama does his job.
Each night, an Obama aide hands the President a binder of documents to review. After his wife goes to bed, at around ten, Obama works in his study, the Treaty Room, on the second floor of the White House residence. President Bush preferred oral briefings; Obama likes his advice in writing. He marks up the decision memos and briefing materials with notes and questions in his neat cursive handwriting. In the morning, each document is returned to his staff secretary. She dates and stamps it—"Back from the OVAL"—and often e-mails an index of the President's handwritten notes to the relevant senior staff and their assistants. A single Presidential comment might change a legislative strategy, kill the proposal of a well-meaning adviser, or initiate a bureaucratic process to answer a Presidential question.
Apparently, the President begins his work day after his wife goes to bed at ten. Lizza does not tell us when the President retires. I am sure that President Bush "preferred oral briefings." I am pretty sure that every other man who occupied the Oval Office preferred oral briefings. One advantage of oral briefings is that you can ask questions. Another is that you can monitor and maintain relationships with members of your team. President Obama is not interested in any of that.
Lizza provides a wealth of examples. Let this one suffice. The Administration had to decide how Democrats would move the healthcare legislation. Here is how that decision was made.
There were two ways for the Senate to approach Obama's health-care plan: the normal process, which required sixty votes to pass the bill, or a shortcut known as "reconciliation," which required only a simple majority and would bypass a possible filibuster. Baucus and several other key Senate Democrats opposed reconciliation, and Republicans decried its use on such major legislation as a partisan power grab. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, complained that using reconciliation would "make it absolutely clear" that Obama and the Democrats in Congress "intend to carry out all of their plans on a purely partisan basis."
On April 10th, Obama's aides sent him a memo asking him to decide the issue. The White House could still fashion a bipartisan bill, but it was important to have the fifty-one-vote option as a backup plan, in case they weren't able to win any Republican support and faced a filibuster. They recommended that he "insist on reconciliation instructions for health care." Below this language, Obama was offered three options: "Agree," "Disagree," "Let's Discuss." The President placed a check mark on the line next to "Agree."
The President is as aloof within his own administration as he is generally. He governs by checking boxes and making brief notes "in his neat cursive handwriting."
I cannot argue any longer that the President provides no leadership. He provides leadership by means of written notes that make a twit look prolix when, that is, he is not merely checking boxes.
This is our man. He could govern from a more remote position only if he were to move his quarters to Newt's moon base. He leads, as Lizza has written before, "from behind." Now we have an idea of how far behind that is.