Obama Must Remake Political Persona for Any Second Term

There still are Kennedy Democrats; there are Clinton Democrats. There are fewer Obama Democrats.

This reflects more the president’s style than his substance; he’s in the mainstream of his party, so popular that any primary challenge was out of the question.

Yet he remains strangely unfamiliar to some core constituencies.

If Barack Obama is re-elected, the biggest challenge won’t be ideological: He’s not the left-winger his opponents depict. The economy will be the dominant issue, events will shape others.

Instead, it may be personal, his political persona. Be it Democratic politicians or members of Congress, campaign contributors or business leaders, there is a common refrain: Obama doesn’t much identify with us, or even much respect what we do.

His relationship with most Democratic members of Congress lies somewhere between correct and cold. They believe that personal political loyalties are not an Obama priority.

What makes this more than an insider’s game is that successful presidents -- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson (domestically), Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- cultivated and established real political relationships.

Could a re-elected Obama improve in this essential element of presidential leadership?

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Obama Biographer

There is no one more knowledgeable than David Maraniss, who wrote the best biography of him, “Barack Obama: The Story,” which traces the 44th president’s family background and life through his late 20s. He has a unique appreciation of his subject’s strengths and frailties, and of his psyche.

“Obama,” Maraniss says, “is mischaracterized as aloof. It’s more a self-imposed detachment. He’s not good at the visceral transactions of politics.”

The author sees two conflicting sides to Obama. There is the writer-anthropologist “who looks at the surreal aspects of the game of politics. He doesn’t want to buy into that game completely. To be fully engaged makes him uncomfortable sometimes.” The other side is a “fiercely competitive” man who appreciates what it takes to succeed and understands history.

When first elected, Obama supposedly sought to secure his personal and political identity by emulating Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals,” enlisting political opposites to his inner circle. This included making Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated in a hotly contested 2008 primary contest, his secretary of state and keeping on Defense Chief Robert Gates, who served in that capacity under Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.

Today, the “Team of Rivals” is more appearance than reality. “He thought it was a great idea and ever since he’s backtracked, he didn’t really do it,” Maraniss says. When top appointments are made, the paramount consideration usually is how the people fit the president’s “comfort” zone.

Congressional Republicans have been unyieldingly partisan; still the president only goes through the motions of dealing with them.

In any second term, he’s likely to face divided government, split public opinion, a lack of any clear mandate, and the need to make critical appointments, starting with state and Treasury. That calls for the promise of Obama, not the personal performance of late.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote the book on Lincoln and his “Team of Rivals,” and has spent time with Obama, says there are precedents for presidents who have changed. FDR, in his third term, facing a global war, reached out to adversarial Republicans such as Frank Knox, to be his secretary of the Navy, and made Henry Stimson his secretary of war.

Machiavellian Roosevelt

Moreover, Roosevelt, who because of his Machiavellian proclivities relished playing people off each other, was straightforward with the key figures in his third term such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the top generals.

Goodwin says political polarization may make it even tougher for Obama than it was for FDR. Republicans were furious that Stimson and Knox joined Roosevelt’s administration; today’s Republicans may hate Obama, especially if he is re-elected, even more than their forerunners hated FDR.

Still, she sees possibilities. “The president,” she says, “needs to use his keen analytical mind to look at what worked and what didn’t work in the first term. He needs to see how and who he spent time with and how he allocated that time.”

Without predicting what he would do, she believes there can be “an enormous sense of comfort” that comes with a re- election that enables a president to stretch.

Historical analogies are a reach, though they aren’t without interest.

Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, noted the other day that he had just finished reading the fourth installment of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. He thought of the contrast with Obama. “Johnson,” Bush says, “would have grabbed people by the shoulders, ears, head. He would have convinced John Boehner that it was his patriotic duty to step up. He would have charmed whoever was the guy who needed to be charmed, or the gal, to get the budget done.”

Obama may not be capable of the personal engagement of a LBJ or FDR. Still, Maraniss believes, more than most politicians or most people, he has “throughout his life shown a capacity to learn and grow and change.”

(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Albert Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.

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