President Obama isn’t quite in hibernation. But he’s saying less, proposing less, appearing in public less, doing less, interacting with Congress less, plugging his health care plan less, and singling out a Republican demon less. It took two years and the harsh rejection of a midterm election for Obama to figure out what shouldn’t have been a secret: The magic of the presidency declines with overindulgence.
Now several days go by at the White House with the president listed as having “no public schedule.” Or his calendar will feature only a string of Oval Office meetings described as “closed press.” That’s Washington lingo for no media coverage whatsoever.
The shift from overexposure to carefully targeted public appearances is the smartest political move the White House has made this year. Americans appear ready for a president who’s not in their face day after day, hectoring, sounding an alarm, and, more often than not in Obama’s case, boring everyone. The less Obama does in public, I suspect, the more popular he’s likely to become. Gradually.
It must have been a blow to Obama’s ego to be told he’d be wise to slack off a bit. Obama is enormously self-confident, especially about his skill as a political performer and orator. Who wouldn’t be after being called eloquent and inspiring so many times during the 2008 presidential campaign?
But the presidency is different. Themes like hope and change fall flat when you have real responsibilities, are building a public record, and constantly face accountability. Omnipresence may work for a candidate, but it doesn’t for a president.
Obama’s now-departed counselor David Axelrod came up with a clever analogy to the overexposure of Obama—Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. When the Bears were bad in the 1980s, “it was Payton left and Payton right and Payton up the middle,” Axelrod told John Heilemann of New York magazine. “It became kind of a dreary game plan. . . . [In Obama] we have one of the great political performers of our time. But I think we degraded that to some degree by using him as much as we did in the ways we did.”
When David Plouffe, who skillfully managed the Obama presidential campaign, replaced Axelrod on the White House staff in January, he urged Obama to reduce his public exposure. William Daley, the new chief of staff, agreed. So these days we not only see Obama less frequently, but see him in seemingly inconsequential pursuits.
Obama showed up on ESPN to outline his March Madness brackets for us, as he had last year. While the Middle East was roiled by unrest, he attended the White House conference on bullying. And while the administration’s policy on Libya was being decided, the president took a trip to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. It was a tour that could have been postponed indefinitely.
The president still has his formal duties. His State of the Union was a dud, however, and he might think about sending his thoughts to Congress in a written message, as presidents did before Woodrow Wilson. His budget was a letdown to those who believe the country faces a spending and debt crisis. The disappointed included much of the mainstream media.
After American warplanes and ships had already been deployed in combat, Obama could hardly have avoided an address to the nation on Libya. His speech, which vigorously supported democracy, was an improvement on the State of the Union. He sounded a lot like George W. Bush.
Normally such speeches are delivered from the Oval Office, with the president speaking into a TV camera. Ronald Reagan, who once said having been an actor comes in handy in politics, was great at this. Obama isn’t. The relocation of his address, given to an audience at the National Defense University, represented another lesson learned.
More need to be. His love of the rhetorical device of the false choice was panned by Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post. Obama, she wrote, “has employed the false-choice device in assessing financial reform, environmental regulation, defense contracting, civil liberties, crime policy, health care, the deployment of troops in Iraq, Native Americans, the space program, and, most recently, the situation in Libya.” Get rid of it, Marcus wrote. Good advice.
It would also be sensible for Obama to drop the relentless use of the empty promise and the meaningless target date. He insists, for example, he’s for free trade and even renegotiated the trade agreement with South Korea last year. Yet he hasn’t sent the agreement to the Senate for ratification.
Why not? It’s the fault of Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, according to Senate Demo-crats. McConnell wants the treaty attached to the trade pacts with Panama and Colombia. Yes, that’s McConnell’s preference. But he’s said he’d be happy to vote separately for the South Korea agreement.
Obama is also for more oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, but permits are being granted at a glacial pace. He’s for cutting the corporate tax rate, yet no tax proposal has emerged from the White House. The problem here is accountability. A president is publicly held to his promises, and it’s embarrassing when he doesn’t keep them. Obama should be embarrassed.
Last week, he uncorked a new target date, plucked for all anyone can tell out of thin air. “By a little more than a decade from now, we will have cut [oil imports] by one-third,” he declared in a speech at Georgetown University. This follows the claim that 80 percent of Americans will have access to high-speed rail “within 25 years.” And 98 percent of Americans will get high-speed wireless coverage “within the next 5 years.” Plus American exports will double by 2014.
It’s doubtful anyone believes this stuff. It adds bluster to a presidency that doesn’t need any. What would help Obama is a bit of mystery. A president gets that from holding back, from recognizing that his every thought need not be spoken. Reagan was good at that. So was FDR. Obama isn’t, but he’s getting better.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.