The Collapsing American President
The last few weeks haven’t been good for Obama. In fact, 2014 is slated to be the worse of his presidency. The continuing problems of Syria, Benghazi, Afghanistan, the Ukraine and Iraq, Obamacare, and the IRS were just the foundation of a slew of new problems that hit the White House in the last couple of weeks – a weak foreign policy speech at West Point, new proposed rules on power plant emissions, the Veterans Administration scandal, and the Bergdahl prisoner trade. No wonder a Reuter’s poll this week showed Obama with a 38% approval rating and a 55% disapproval rating.
The slide is not coming from Republicans or independents, which have already deserted Obama. The slide in approval is coming from the Democratic base. The National Journal, a generally pro-Obama publication had an article titled: “’I’ve Had Enough’: When Democrats Quit on Obama – Bergdahl swap is latest last straw for top Democrats frustrated with president’s leadership.” The theme of the piece was that several top level Democrats have lost faith in Obama. The article stated, “They respect and admire Obama but believe that his presidency has been damaged by his shortcomings as a leader; his inattention to details of governing; his disengagement from the political process and from the public; his unwillingness to learn on the job; and his failure to surround himself with top-shelf advisers who are willing to challenge their boss as well as their own preconceived notions.”
The result is that the White House has become tone deaf and is lurching from self-induced crisis to self-induced crisis. The West Point speech was to counter Obama’s perceived weakness in foreign policy, but merely highlighted it even more. The Bergdahl trade was designed to quiet the VA scandal and show his concern for veterans and those who serve in the military, but it proved unpopular with veterans. In fact, 68% of veteran or veteran families opposed the deal. And, to top off the damage done to his popularity from the trade, he didn’t consult Congress as required by law, which caused more political damage, especially amongst Democratic allies in both the Senate and House. The vast majority (64/30) of Americans believe Congress should have been consulted, including a (67/38) landslide among independents.
So, why Obama and the White House are making so many spectacular failures now? The answer is complex and is a blend of institutional problems and personality traits of Obama and his closest advisors.
The White House Prison
The insularity of the presidency has grown dramatically in the past 60 years. President Truman would frequently leave the White House for morning walks without his Secret Service protection. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy would frequently travel in open cars to see the people. That changed with the Kennedy assassination. The Secret Service became so obsessed with protecting the president that he is now isolated from the people he represents.
The protection for the president (Republican or Democrat) is smothering. Air and surface traffic is stopped while he is in motion and any group that he is seeing is carefully screened in advance for potential troublemakers or even people with politically opposing ideas. And, those groups are usually limited to hearing a preplanned speech or, in the case of Oval office visits, are merely there for a few chosen words and a photo opportunity.
The result is that the president rarely sees or hears an average American from the day he becomes president until he leaves office. His only window to the public is polling, which is frequently less about knowing what Americans think or want, but is tuned for a political outcome. The problem has grown as more polls are commissioned to produce certain results by carefully wording the questions.
The second institutional problem is the same one that faces most leaders, a staff of sycophants who tell the leader what he wants to hear, not bad news that he probably should hear. This week, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post noted that this was the problem with the Bergdahl trade. Commenting on the unanimous view by Obama’s advisors that the trade was the right choice, Milbank wrote, “I don’t doubt these accounts about Obama’s agreeable advisers. Such affirmations of Obama’s instincts are what has worried me about the way Obama has structured his administration in his second term: By surrounding himself with longtime loyalists in the White House and on his national-security team, he has left himself with advisers lacking either the stature or the confidence to tell him when he’s wrong…The danger with such an arrangement is you create a bubble around yourself, and your advisers become susceptible to groupthink.”
Combined with the isolation of the presidency, the choice of agreeable advisors leaves the president unusually reliant on few reliable sources of information about voter views. In fact, the American president may know more about views in other countries than the views of his own citizens. The result is that the president is more vulnerable to making political mistakes that he wouldn’t have made if he were more in tune with the electorate.
The Obama Personality
The natural isolation of the presidency is combined with some of Obama’s personality traits to make a dangerous mix. Obama is something of a loner, who is surrounded by a small coterie of trusted advisers like Valerie Jarrett and is unwilling to expand his political circle, even in the face of evidence that such a move would enhance his own political fortunes and the nation’s.
Everybody else, including members of his Cabinet, have little face time with him except for brief meetings that serve as photo ops. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner both noted that they were shut out of important decisions.
Vanity Fair, in a piece titled “The Lonely Guy,” says Obama lives in a personal and political bubble. They note, “The latest round of ‘what did the president know and when did he know it’ on the disastrous rollout of Obamacare and the tapping of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone raised troubling questions: Were Obama’s aides too afraid to tell him? Was he too detached to ask? Or both?”
Again, this means that Obama has limited sources of information on what is happening with average Americans and even fewer people to rely upon for feedback when he is contemplating a decision. And, that leads to the surprises and frequent backlash that occur when the president makes a decision.
Obama also refuses to accept criticism, which reinforces the tendency of those around him to agree rather than provide useful criticism. A good example was shown in the campaign book Double Down, where the authors note Obama’s relationship with members of the Congressional Black Caucus is tense because he balks at any hint of criticism from black politicians
Another weakness appears to be a short attention span. Again, from the National Journal article, “A Democratic House member whose endorsement in 2008 helped lift the Obama candidacy told me in January, “He’s bored and tired of being president, and our party is paying the price.” “Talented guy but no leader,” said a Democratic lobbyist and former member of Congress in March. “If he could govern half as well as he campaigns, he’d be a good-to-great president.””
Unlike most presidents, who work long hours, Obama is not a workaholic. In fact, he admitted that in an ABC news interview in 2011. Obama’s workdays are said to end early, often at 4 p.m. He usually has dinner in the family residence with his wife and daughters, then retreats to a private office. One person said he takes a stack of briefing books. Others aren’t sure what he does.
The natural isolation of the White House, Obama’s loner mentality, his short attention span, and lazy work habits have created a long list of problems for this administration. There has been a loss of confidence among some U.S. allies about the administration’s commitment at a time of escalating tensions thanks to a lazy nature that fails to take foreign policy seriously and a short attention span that fails to follow up after a “pivot.” Russia is displaying more aggressiveness than anytime since the Cold War and China has provoked many of its neighbors with aggressive actions at sea.
Obama has fallen short also by misreading the US electorate. The Bergdahl trade and the VA scandal are excellent examples of how he has totally misread American values and opinion. He is still convinced that Obamacare is popular with Americans because he is too isolated to speak with the majority of Americans who disapprove of it. Other issues like immigration, environmental policy, regulation, voter identification, a balanced budget, and defense policy are also 180 degrees out of step with what been perceived American views.
As has been noted in the past, second term presidencies are usually cursed with bad ratings. However, Obama is suffering more do to a tone deafness that has set him at odds with the American electorate.
Can he recover? Probably not.
A turn around would require two things, new staff and a new attitude by Obama. However, Obama has shown distaste for firing members of his administration, even when faced with serious problems – the VA firing is an exception to the rule. That means that he will continue to live in the self imposed bubble of limited information, a lack of dissent, and access. In fact, chances are that the circle of confidants will shrink as the attacks against his policies grow.
Nor is it likely that Obama will change his personality traits that have bedeviled his administration. In fact, some reports are coming out of Washington saying that he is already distracted by his post-presidential life and looking forward to it.
This leaves the Democratic Party with a dilemma. Like it or not, they are tied to Obama and his policies and the election in 6 months will reflect it. The House looks secure for the Republicans and the Senate may swing out of Democratic hands in November.
A legislative branch dominated by Republicans will only make life that much more miserable for Obama. Given his personality, he will likely withdraw that much more into the Presidential bubble and look forward to January 20, 2017.
Although Obama can withdraw, the Democrats can’t. They will need a visible leader for the run up to the 2016 presidential election. And, it’s become clear in the last few weeks of presidential missteps that Hillary Clinton is readying herself to fill the role of leader of the Democratic Party.
A withdrawn Obama and a bumbling White House will strengthen her status amongst Democratic faithful. She can raise money and start supporting candidates for congressional and state offices, which will help her if she decided to run for president.
However, Hillary Clinton has to carry the baggage of her service in the Obama Administration – baggage that may very well sink her. Although many of the failures in foreign policy came after her term as Secretary of State, she still has to adequately answer questions on Libya, Syria, and Russia. She will also have to answer for her political support for controversial Obama decisions when she could have resigned in protest.
And, although Hillary has better work habits than Obama, she also suffers from tone deafness that rubs some American wrong. The most recent example was her comments this week that she and her husband President Bill Clinton were “dead broke,” after leaving the White House, even though she had just signed a $8 million book deal and they were buying a house in New York so she could run for the Senate. These could be just as damaging as some of the Obama missteps.
As it stands, the power of the Obama White House is collapsing. Its missteps are organic and likely to continue unless there is a major shakeup at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The Republican Party is preparing to take a more active role in government after the mid-term elections and the Democratic Party is looking for a new leader – a leader that can win in 2016 and erase the failures of the current administration.
Afghanistan and Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Worst Case Wars
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
June 10, 2014
The US needs to learn hard lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan even if it does intend to fight such wars in the future. The Burke Chair is issuing a summary analysis of these lessons that focuses on what the US needs to learn as it shifts towards a strategy centered on strategic partnerships, and where irregular and unconventional war will be a critical element in US security efforts.
Al Qaeda takes control of another city in Obama-abandoned Iraq
By Marc Thiessen
American Enterprise Institute
June 10, 2014
Remember Joe Biden’s claim in 2010 that Iraq would go down as “one of the great achievements of [the Obama] administration”? Back then, Biden boasted “You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.” Well, the Washington Post updates us on the results this morning:
Insurgents seized control early Tuesday of most of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, including the provincial government headquarters, offering a powerful demonstration of the mounting threat posed by extremists to Iraq’s teetering stability.
Syria’s Very Local Regional Conflict
By Yezid Sayigh
June 10, 2014
A few months after Syria’s uprising began in March 2011, it became commonplace to portray the country as the battleground for a proxy contest between regional and international powers. Since then, Syria’s descent into full-fledged civil war has prompted an equally widespread view that any resolution depends wholly on reaching an understanding between those powers. But the highly localized nature of the Syrian conflict means that its evolution and eventual resolution, whether this comes through diplomatic or military means, will elude the control of outsiders.
Iran: Syria’s Lone Regional Ally
By Karim Sadjadpour
June 9, 2014
Few countries in the world stand to lose more from the collapse of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria than its lone regional ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite being subjected to onerous economic sanctions over its nuclear ambitions, Tehran’s unwavering financial and military support has proven critical to Assad’s continued survival. For Tehran, the Syrian conflict is not simply about who controls Damascus. It is the epicenter of a broader ideological, sectarian, and geopolitical struggle against a diverse array of adversaries, including radical Sunni jihadists, Arab Gulf states, Israel, and the United States.
An Israeli Perspective on Syria
By Ariel (Eli) Levite
June 9, 2014
Israel’s strategy toward the Syrian conflict has been rather opaque, with Israeli officials maintaining an unusually low profile on the issue since the onset of the civil war. Only a handful of authoritative official statements have been made on the issue during this period, and even these have been largely enigmatic on the broader issues concerned, usually confined to a single topic—namely, Syrian strategic arms transfers to Hezbollah. Furthermore, Israel has made no active effort to be part of the Geneva diplomatic process.
Regional Spillover: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict
By Lina Khatib
June 9, 2014
Lebanon faces complex problems associated with the Syrian conflict. Over 1 million refugees are changing the country’s demographics, straining its social contract, and putting pressure on its economy. The Lebanese government’s lack of a refugee policy and sharp domestic political divisions over intervention in Syria are contributing to security concerns and sectarian tensions in Lebanon. And regional rivalries, namely between Saudi Arabia and Iran, have exacerbated polarization between Lebanese clients. Lebanon has always been in the shadow of Syria. Following both countries’ independence in the 1940s, Syria did not fully accept Lebanon’s sovereignty—despite its official recognition of the Lebanese state—and since then Damascus has exerted significant influence over Lebanese politics. Syrian oversight was strengthened during the Lebanese civil war, when in 1976 the then Lebanese president, Suleiman Frangieh, invited Syrian troops into his country to act as a “deterrent” force in the struggle between Lebanese and Palestinian factions. Those troops ended up becoming key players in the conflict.
Gulf Calculations in the Syrian Conflict
By Frederic Wehrey
June 9, 2014
The Gulf is far from a monolithic force, and Gulf policies toward Syria are complex, driven by a number of factors ranging from sectarian divides to power politics. Still, there are some clear commonalities and divergences when it comes to the Gulf states’ interests, activities, and prospects in Syria.
Turkey’s Uphill Battle in Syria
By Sinan Ülgen
June 10, 2014
Turkey faces the challenge of recalibrating its policy toward Syria given the Assad regime’s resilience and gradual recovery of international legitimacy.
The Costs of U.S. Restraint in Syria
By Michele Dunne
June 10, 2014
Washington’s reluctance to take a leadership role in Syria has played a part in increasing the threat to core U.S. interests.
Russia’s Interests in Syria
By Dmitri Trenin
June 10, 2014
Russia has two broad strategic objectives in the Syrian conflict: challenging U.S. dominance in world affairs and aiding Assad in the fight against Islamist radicals.
Moving Beyond China’s Confident Rhetoric on Syria
By Paul Haenle
June 10, 2014
China is unusually secure in its policy of nonintervention in the Syrian conflict. But will strong rhetoric and vetoes be enough?
The European Union’s Concerns About Syria
By Marc Pierini
June 10, 2014
The Syrian conflict has recently become a major source of concern for Europe, but it could still be overshadowed by an escalation of tensions in Ukraine.
Mosul Security Crisis: A Chance to Break Iraq’s Political Logjam
By Michael Knights
June 10, 2014
Over the past week, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, has seized control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. ISIS and its antecedents have long maintained a covert presence in the city, including major fundraising via organized crime networks, but the current breakdown has witnessed open terrorist control of the streets to an extent not seen since 2005. Beginning with powerful probing actions by Sunni militant convoys at the city’s northern and western edges on June 6, the ISIS offensive quickly snowballed. At present, hundreds of militants are openly contesting control with government forces in the predominantly Arab neighborhoods west of the Tigris River. The provincial council and governor have been forced to withdraw from their offices, which were overrun on June 9; they are reportedly sheltering under Kurdish protection in eastern Mosul. ISIS forces are now within the perimeter of the city’s international airport and military air base; worse yet, over 200 U.S.-provided armored vehicles and masses of weaponry have been lost to the group, greatly strengthening its capabilities in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, over 150,000 people have reportedly left the city, and streams of displaced people are visible on outbound roads.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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