WASHINGTON — Affectations can be dangerous, as Gertrude Stein said.
When Barack Obama first ran for president, he theatrically cast himself as the man alone on the stage.
From his address in Berlin to his acceptance speech in Chicago, he eschewed ornaments and other politicians, conveying the sense that he was above the grubby political scene, unearthly and apart.
He began Dreams From My Father with a description of his time living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side while he was a student at Columbia, savoring his lone-wolf existence. He was, he wrote, “prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions.” When neighbors began to “cross the border into familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself. I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew.’’
His only “kindred spirit” was a silent old man who lived alone in the apartment next door. Obama carried groceries for him but never asked his name. When the old man died, Obama briefly regretted not knowing his name, then swiftly regretted his regret.
But what started as an affectation has turned into an affliction.
A front-page article in The New York Times by Carl Hulse, Jeremy Peters and Michael Shear chronicled how the president’s disdain for politics has alienated many of his most stalwart Democratic supporters on Capitol Hill. His bored-bird-in-a-gilded cage attitude, the article said, “has left him with few loyalists to effectively manage the issues erupting abroad and at home and could imperil his efforts to leave a legacy in his final stretch in office.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, an early Obama backer, noted that “for him, eating his spinach is schmoozing with elected officials.”
First the president couldn’t work with Republicans because they were too obdurate. Then he tried to chase down reporters with subpoenas. Now he finds members of his own party an unnecessary distraction.
His circle keeps getting more inner. He golfs with aides and jocks, and he spent his one evening back in Washington from Martha’s Vineyard at a nearly five-hour dinner at the home of a nutritional adviser and former White House assistant chef, Sam Kass.
The president who was elected because he was a hot commodity is now a wet blanket.
The extraordinary candidate turns out to be the most ordinary of men, frittering away precious time on the links. Unlike LBJ, who devoured problems as though he were being chased by demons, Obama’s main galvanizing impulse was to get himself elected.
Almost everything else – from an all-out push on gun control after the Newtown massacre, to going to see firsthand the Hispanic children thronging at the border, to using his special status to defuse racial tensions in Ferguson – just seems like too much trouble.
The 2004 speech that vaulted Obama into the White House soon after he breezed into town turned out to be wrong. He misdescribed the country he wanted to lead. There is a liberal America and a conservative America. And the red-blue divide has only gotten worse in the last six years.
The man whose singular qualification was as a uniter turns out to be singularly unequipped to operate in a polarized environment.
His boosters argue that we spurned his gift of healing, so healing is the one thing that must not be expected of him. We ingrates won’t let him be the redeemer he could have been.
As Ezra Klein wrote in Vox: “If Obama’s speeches aren’t as dramatic as they used to be, this is why: the White House believes a presidential speech on a politically charged topic is as likely to make things worse as to make things better.”
He concluded: “There probably won’t be another Race Speech because the White House doesn’t believe there can be another Race Speech. For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president.”
So The One who got elected as the most exciting politician in American history is The One from whom we must never again expect excitement?
Do White House officials fear that Fox News could somehow get worse to them?
Sure, the president has enemies. Sure, there are racists out there. Sure, he’s going to get criticized for politicizing something. But as FDR said of his moneyed foes, “I welcome their hatred.”
Why should the president neutralize himself? Why doesn’t he do something bold and thrilling? Get his hands dirty? Stop going to Beverly Hills to raise money and go to St. Louis to raise consciousness? Talk to someone besides Valerie Jarrett?
The Constitution was premised on a system full of factions and polarization. If you’re a fastidious pol who deigns to heal and deal only in a holistic, romantic, unified utopia, the Oval Office is the wrong job for you. The sad part is that this is an ugly, confusing and frightening time at home and abroad, and the country needs its president to illuminate and lead, not sink into some petulant expression of his aloofness, where he regards himself as a party of his own and a victim of petty, needy, bickering egomaniacs.
Once Obama thought his isolation was splendid. But it turned out to be unsplendid.
Obama’s circle keeps getting more inner.