Is Highfalutin’ Barack Obama Humble Enough to Listen to Politico Yet?

Here’s the final thought from

Politico’s analysis

of what went wrong for Barack Obama in the midterm elections, as mid-president John Boehner begins moving his things into the mid-Oval Office:

It may be, however, that Obama is feeling his rebuke more keenly than is apparent to outsiders.

It may, indeed. Though that also implies it may not be, which is something to think about. Possibly the president had to put on a sadface to meet the press on Wednesday, while secretly bubbling with joy that he wouldn’t have to listen to the Blue Dogs anymore. Maybe he’s just so psyched about the Dallas Cowboys being in last place that this whole election thing rolled right off him.

But John F. Harris and Glenn Thrush are certain that this is a moment of reckoning for Obama. The question, as they see it, is whether the president is too uppity—”thin-skinned and a bit highfalutin’” is how Douglas Brinkley puts it for them—to listen to all the people who are lining up to tell him why he is a failure who deserved his “comeuppance”:

It’s the sort of complaint that comes to the fore in background conversations with lawmakers, lobbyists and veterans of previous administrations who interact with Obama’s West Wing staffers: that they’ve created a cult of personality around Obama, having followed their boss on his rapid and improbable ascent to the presidency. Many of these devotees do, indeed, feel that he is the political equivalent of NBA phenom LeBron James. The view is based on a belief that Obama’s outsize political skills and uncommon personal poise make him different than conventional politicians and immune to conventional political laws of gravity.

Oddly—or maybe unsurprisingly—Harris and Thrush bring up the Obama-as-LeBron James comparison twice without ever mentioning the basketball player’s own

public-image fiasco

in 2010. An uncharitable reader might wonder if Politico has any idea who LeBron James really is or what he does. It might be educational for the writers to look into it; now that James has switched from offseason public relations to the actual work of playing basketball, his Miami Heat are outscoring their opponents by an average of

16.6 points per game

. Suddenly his hubris doesn’t seem to be hurting him at all.

Harris and Thrush are too busy talking about the “conventional political laws of gravity” to go chasing the LeBron analogy. Actually, they’re too busy even to follow their own metaphor and explain what those “laws of gravity” are. Are they the same thing as historical precedents? Because the historical precedents say it’s perfectly normal for presidents’ parties to lose Congressional seats in the midterms—not because of the president’s unpopularity, but because the president

isn’t on the ballot to support them


History also says that when the economy is bad—gracious, why am I even typing this? If you are reading a blog post about politics on Slate, you already know it. You know that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both took beatings in the midterms and went on to be reelected. Presidents and parties go up and down. The economy goes up and down. It makes for a pretty simple story. Keep an eye on the unemployment figures, and check back in 2012.

But Politico isn’t after a plausible story, it’s after the Narrative—the things that lawmakers, lobbyists, and veterans of previous administrations say to reporters in background conversations to explain how history would be different, if only the people in charge were as smart as they are. Barack Obama is a prisoner of his monstrous ego and blind self-confidence, and that is why Blanche Lincoln lost in Arkansas.

Who is meant to be reading this? Here’s another insight Harris and Thrush came up with:

Obama’s predicament of 2010 suggests another refrain of the modern presidency: Its occupants arrive in office shaped pre-eminently by experience, with character formed well before leaders reach the White House.

The modern presidency! Whereas James Madison and Ulysses S. Grant were kept in dark rooms with drawn velvet draperies from infancy to middle age, at which point they were taught the rudiments of the English language and installed in the White House as perfect blank slates. William McKinley was elected after a passing crowd glimpsed him through an upper window of a nunnery.

The writers are so taken with their premise, they come back to it three paragraphs later:

[W]hat’s clear in 2010 is that Obama is like all presidents a product of his past.

Actually, unlike other presidents, Obama is a product of his future, and is aging backwards; in 2022, he will turn from 35 to 34 and become ineligible for the presidency. Kidding! He totally has a past, as you can tell from the experts Politico tapped to explain why he is so politically incompetent:

Mike Lawrence, a veteran GOP staffer at the Illinois State Capitol

One prominent Democratic strategist

[F]ormer Des Moines Register reporter David Yepsen, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois.

Politico suspects that Obama may be too wedded to “what he believes” was the lesson of his victory in 2008—”always stay the course, don’t be distracted by ephemeral controversies or smart-set importuning for a change of direction.” This is the worst possible thing a politician could think, in Politico’s world. Thus the reporters got the prominent Democratic strategist—hm, would that be a prominent strategist who worked for Obama, or a prominent strategist who got beaten by Obama?—to wonder whether Obama would be smart enough to abandon his guiding principles:

“The question is, does Obama have the suppleness of mind, the flexibility, the self-confidence to question basic premises?” the Democrat asked. “And does he have the intuition to know when to take half a loaf and when to stand firm? They don’t teach that at Harvard Law, you know.”

Ronald Reagan never went to Harvard Law, where they teach fancy concepts like ”

stay the course

.” That’s why, after the 1982 midterms, Reagan dropped the whole conservative thing and started running on pacifism and poverty relief. He couldn’t have saved his presidency without it. Will Obama be similarly flexible? Yepsen, the former reporter for the Des Moines Register, told Politico this:

“I don’t think he realizes the mess he’s in, that he’s staring into his political grave.”

If only Barack Obama had the broad-view political sense of a political expert on the Iowa caucuses! Then he might appreciate how serious things are. “Where’s the guy who out-hustled Hillary Clinton?” Yepsen asked. Well, for at least two more years, he’s in Washington D.C., running the country.