Barack is not impressed: The president’s reluctance to kowtow to the very rich

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo News

Both parties have fixed beliefs about this presidential race that are so entwined with their DNA that they defy argument. Democrats, for example, possess an inner certainty that Mitt Romney deliberately molded his economic policies so that people like him (the mega-wealthy) would pay much less in taxes. In similar fashion, Republicans are welded to the conviction that President Barack Obama is mostly animated by a personal antipathy to the rich.

Paul Ryan expressed this GOP worldview in a speech yesterday on his initial second-banana swing through Pennsylvania. “Every now and then President Obama sort of drops his veil,” Ryan said. “He’s less coy about his philosophy. He sort of reveals his true governing policy, what he really believes.” Then Romney’s running mate rattled off a few familiar examples from 2008 like Obama’s claim that small-town Pennsylvanians “cling to guns or religion” and his comment to Joe the Plumber that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

Two major journalistic efforts, published this week, emphasize the political consequences of Obama’s diffident attitude towards the billionaire class of campaign donors. Both a meaty New Yorker article by Jane Mayer and the best e-book in Politico’s series of campaign chronicles analyze why Obama, with all the powers of presidential incumbency, is so hobbled in the super PAC spending race.

The New Yorker succinctly summarizes the Democratic problem in its headline: “SCHMOOSE OR LOSE–Obama doesn’t like cozying up to billionaires. Will it cost him the election?” The Politico e-book, “Obama’s Last Stand,” by Glenn Thrush makes the identical point about the president: “He was also hurt by his own aversion to massaging demanding Democratic donors–many of them Clinton Democrats who never liked him in the first place.”

Most major political figures in both parties have grown adept at convincing donors with the net worth of King Midas that it is friendship–and not, God forbid, money–that has brought them together. Ryan himself flew to Las Vegas last week to pledge fealty to GOP super PAC impresario Sheldon Adelson. Bill Clinton, who embodies the gold standard in schmoozing with the wealthy, made a personal pitch to a VIP gathering of Democratic super PAC donors in New York last week along with David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager who is now on the White House payroll.

But Obama himself stubbornly resists the petty insincerities that are the coin of the realm when it comes to “donor maintenance,” a wonderful Clinton-era euphemism for events like White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers. (During the Clinton years, I recall a major donor, who had a penchant for displaying her cleavage, telling me in all sincerity, “The president respects my policy advice.”) In contrast, as Mayer recounts, Obama couldn’t even be bothered to pose for pictures with his most devoted contributors during the 2009 White House Christmas and Hanukkah parties.

While the after-shocks from the financial crisis created an inevitable distancing between the White House and Wall Street, Obama’s fund-raising problems have far more to do with atmospherics and attitudes than governing substance. Despite Ryan’s rhetoric, Obama’s economic policies reflect the mainstream of the Democratic Party–and not some alien ideology. Many liberals, from Nancy Pelosi to Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, believe with some justice that Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have been too lenient and soft-spoken in reacting to the greed-is-good excesses of the financial community.

What it all comes back to is the idiosyncratic psychology of Barack Obama, who is probably the most elusive president since Woodrow Wilson. (The 28th president was such an enigma that Sigmund Freud— yes, that guy—co-authored a psychological study of him). Part of it is that Obama keeps the entire world, outside of his family and a few close friends like Valerie Jarrett, at a middle distance. There is an odd democracy to this since Obama ignores major Democratic donors in the same even-handed way that he neglects Senate committee chairmen.

Obama is unusual in politics—and here Republicans make a valid point—in his apparent refusal to be awed in the presence of billionaires. Unlike the Clintons and the Romney-Ryan ticket, Obama is not a devout believer in the gospel of wealth. As a Democratic fund-raiser, quoted in the Politico e-book, says about the president, “He doesn’t understand the rich. He’s an intellectual elitist, not an economic one.”

In Pennsylvania yesterday, Ryan disapprovingly cited Obama’s recent line, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” The president was trying to make the political point that all types of government spending, from schools to roads, contribute to the success of any American business. The Republicans, though, are willing to go to battle over this point with the same enthusiasm they chanted, “Drill, baby, drill” in 2008. The political theme for Tuesday—the second day of the GOP convention—is “We Built That.”

Unlike most clashes in this campaign, this debate over the role of government in the creation of wealth and new businesses reflects abiding differences between the Democratic and Republican tickets as well as competing philosophies. As Mayer summarizes in the New Yorker, “Obama continues to see economic success as the result of many factors beside individual effort, and, consequently, he may be less awed by wealth than others.”

Campaign reporters, though, comprise a class that is awed by wealth in politics. The Politico e-book calls Obama’s failure to initially encourage Democratic super PAC spending the president’s biggest mistake of the campaign. Mayer shrewdly worries about the effects of the anything-goes culture of unlimited campaign donations (the new world in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision) on the 2016 presidential race when there may be no incumbent on the ballot.

While lamenting the thumb-on-the-scales powers of billionaires like Adelson in politics, I skeptically wonder if the heavy emphasis on the rival TV ad campaigns in this year’s Obama-Romney race is not exaggerated. With two conventions and three presidential debates, voters in swing states will go to the polls with a vast arsenal of information beyond the contents of 30-second attack ads.

Maybe, in fact, Obama will be proved right in his hesitation to offer homage to Democratic donors with yachts and four vacation homes. Of course, the president’s steadfast reluctance to schmooze-you-can-use with everyone else in politics may speak to a far deeper problem about using the full powers of the White House to govern. 

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