Barack Obama: a disengaged president

Obama reflectingFor Barack Obama, the turning point in the 2008 presidential election came as a gift, courtesy of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. While his opponent, Sen. John McCain, reacted to the crisis like a headless chicken, Obama emerged as the man who looked like a cool and competent economic manager — a better bet for steering the nation at a time of financial turmoil. But bear in mind that prior to the collapse on Wall Street, the Obama campaign was struggling to figure out how to respond to another awesome challenge… that posed by Sarah Palin.

So, we should never forget that to the extent that Obama entered office with an aura of competence, that was never more than competence defined by contrast with the scary prospect of a McCain-Palin administration.

In his book, The Amateur, Edward Klein writes:

While on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard [in August 2010], Obama invited New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to play a round of golf at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Massachusetts. A self-made billionaire, Bloomberg had been touted as a possible replacement for Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury. Bloomberg flew to the island on his private jet, eager to give Obama advice on how to get the country moving again. Obama and Bloomberg were joined by Vernon Jordan, a Lazard Frères & Co. senior managing director and longtime Democratic Party wise man, and Marvin Nicholson, the White House trip director who keeps Obama organized and on schedule. When the round of golf was over, the president left immediately. Bloomberg looked nonplussed. He turned to his golfing colleagues and said, “I played four hours of golf with the president and he didn’t ask me a goddam thing.”

It’s worth noting that at that time, a White House spokesman made a point of noting that Obama’s round of golf had been preceded by a 15-minute discussion with Bloomberg on the economy. The intended image was of a president who goes on vacation but refuses to leave work behind.

Bloomberg’s own account, however, paints a picture of a man who not only gladly disengages from work but also from the people around him.

Given the unique challenges Obama faced from day one, it’s easy to see that sooner or later he might become over-burdened, but there are accounts of his lack of engagement right from the beginning.

[Gen. Stanley McChrystal who in early 2009 was Director of the Joint Staff] first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged.”

Four years later, Obama still created the sense that he was disengaged when faced with challenging issues.

Even as the debate about arming the rebels [in Syria] took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.

While many of Obama’s most ardent admirers have been overseas — their admiration largely being inspired by his character seeming to be the antithesis of George Bush’s — they do not include Angela Merkel.

Merkel’s connection to Obama wasn’t particularly good before the spying scandal. The chancellor is said to consider the president overrated — a politician who talks a lot but does little, and is unreliable to boot.

One example, from Berlin’s perspective, was the military operation in Libya almost three years ago, which Obama initially rejected. When then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convinced him to change his mind, he did so without consulting his allies. Berlin saw this as evidence of his fickleness and disregard for their concerns.

The chancellor also finds Washington’s regular advice on how to solve the euro crisis irritating. She would prefer not to receive instruction from the country that caused the collapse of the global financial system in the first place.

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2 thoughts on “Barack Obama: a disengaged president

  1. Norman

    Disengaged, is one way to put it, but at what cost, both to him and the country? I believe we have the answer to the second part of the question, just not the final tally. Perhaps it really doesn’t matter, as this could be era that the human race blows itself up, hence the mad dash grab everything that the money people can get. Short sightedness sure seems to be in vogue today vs the purported long view that’s always cropping up when knowledgeable talking heads get published. He can’t say that they didn’t warn him from the beginning.

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