The loner in the White House

Howard LaFranchi, (in a rather superficial treatment), raises an interesting issue: Does it matter that Obama has no foreign friends?

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, sit down for dinner with the Obamas in the White House family dining room March 30, it will be a rare occasion for Barack Obama: a private, personal, perhaps even chatty evening with another world leader.

Fourteen months into the Obama presidency, one striking feature of an American president who took office to a swooning world is the absence of any strong personal ties – or even a go-to working relationship – with any other world leader. Where Ronnie had Maggie, and Bill and even George W. had Tony, Mr. Obama has no one leader. Instead, the former law professor has what seems to be a preference for big-themed foreign speeches (think Cairo; Prague, Czech Republic; Moscow; Accra, Ghana) and policy gatherings (his UN nuclear summit, the Pittsburgh Group of 20 economic summit, a White House nuclear nonproliferation summit in May) bereft of the warm and fuzzy.

Even the Sarkozy dinner seems to be more an amendsmaker than a familiar, “Hey Sarko, why don’t you come on over for dinner and some one-on-one conversation?” When the Obamas were in Paris last year, Obama turned down a dinner invitation to the Elyseé Palace, ostensibly so he could take Michelle out for a private night on the town.

Obama’s cool, all-business demeanor with his global peers is all the more striking because it follows the polar-opposite style of George W. Bush.

It’s inevitable that Obama gets contrasted with Bush. After all, Obama got elected in large part by virtue of not being Bush. But the contrast in personalities tends to obscure a more important issue by casting this shift as something akin to a seasonal change — from warm to cool.

Stephen Hess is no doubt correct in pointing out that personal relations with foreign leaders may not ultimately dictate policy choices of an American president, but the significance of Obama’s aloofness may rest less on what we can predict about its specific political effects than in what it tells us about the president’s self-image and his relationships with others — not just other world leaders.

To the extent that an American president cultivates a rapport with his foreign counterparts, the significance in his doing so seems to be to be that at least to some degree he sees himself as part of a peer group. But to the extent that Obama does not believe he has peers, this will likely lead to a dangerous and corrosive form of isolation. The more isolated he becomes, the fewer checks and balances there are that can be applied to his own judgment.

And let’s not forget, this is an administration in which the president is surrounded by an exceptionally small inner circle of advisers who seem to prize their closeness above their capacity to advise.

Obama may be a great speech maker, but that doesn’t make him a great communicator.

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2 thoughts on “The loner in the White House

  1. Alice Diane Kisch

    Not only is the treatment superficial, but the question itself is inane. How do we know that Obama ‘has no foreign friends’? Because he doesn’t broadcast his friendships world-wide in an adolescent show of how ‘popular’ he is and of how at least one (or more) country is BFF with the POTUS? One striking characteristic of our current President is that, unlike any other U.S. President in my living memory — and my memory goes back to FDR — Barack Obama is an adult. Please, Paul Woodward, don’t waste your column inches and our time and attention with this sort of childish nonsense.

  2. eatbees

    Hasn’t friendly but formal been the style throughout history? I don’t think that being chummy with world leaders became a requirement until Bill Clinton popularized it.

    If Obama developed a close friendship with, say, Lula of Brazil, wouldn’t he immediately be criticized for putting the personal before policy in a way that endangers American interests? This could happen even if he showed a too-close attachment to the Japanese or Danish leader. The social police only seem to think it’s okay when it’s a Brit (“Ronnie had Maggie… and George W. had Tony”) or maybe an Israeli (Bush and Sharon).

    It’s absurd to imagine that Obama considers himself literally peerless, above everyone. He’s had close working relationships, friendships, and mentor relationships (in both directions) his entire adult life. Haven’t we heard that he has pals back in Chicago whom he invites to Washington for special occasions? Isn’t he known as friendly and casual with even lower-ranked staff? But as a man who’s spent his life being scrutinized as the first black man in the room, he must be aware of how those who own the club (or think they do) can be vicious in protecting its imagined interests. Isn’t he under blistering attack for his very legitimacy? Remember the pettiness that forced out his wife’s social secretary, or the to-do about his working in shirtsleeves in the Oval Office?

    Sadly, Obama’s guardedness says as much about our current environment as it does about Obama the man. As President, I doubt he feels he has much freedom even to pick and choose his friends. And he’s reacting (as ADK said above) as an adult, being friendly but formal with all world leaders.

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