In a brave but corny attempt at State of the Union humor, Barack Obama bragged Tuesday about rescinding a cockamamie federal regulation that required dairy farmers to spend as much as $10,000 to protect against milk spills. "With a rule like that," the president declared, "I guess it was worth crying over spilt milk."
Actually, Obama's third address to a perpetually divided Congress marked the end of the spilt-milk phase of his presidency. Whatever might have happened during the first three years of the Obama administration (a more aggressive battle against unemployment, a less credulous faith in the president's efforts to built bipartisan bridges), it is too late now for regrets. Barack Obama goes into his reelection campaign with the public record that he has rather than the one that he might have wanted or wished to have.
Little that Obama said during his 66-minute State of the Union address offered new clues about what kind of a president he would be if granted a second term. The print edition of the Wall Street Journal headlined the speech, "Obama Makes Populist Pitch." But Obama, a believer in meritocratic government, did not morph into William Jennings Bryan. In a presidential election year, it is dangerous to overinterpret focus-grouped tonal shifts in Obama's rhetoric as if the political language offered a window into his soul.
The second-term question that fascinates me about Obama--and one that I intend to make an ongoing theme of this column over the next 10 months--is, What has he learned after three years in the Oval Office?
Self-criticism is not normally part of the president's workout routine. But in her revealing new book The Obamas, Jodi Kantor reports that after last summer's debt-ceiling debacle, Obama and Valerie Jarrett, his closest confidant in the White House, "had long, searching conversations about the failure." The president, according to Kantor, would ask other advisers, "What do you think we did wrong?"
For Obama and company, the takeaway lesson was the folly of attempting to negotiate grand compromises with congressional Republicans in the current venomous political environment. Kantor, a New York Times reporter, stresses that Obama's political image was built around his gauzy promises to bridge the chasm between red America and blue America. But now, she writes, "He was faced with the consequences of his overconfidence, his naiveté."
Ryan Lizza, a writer for the New Yorker who obtained hundreds of pages of internal White House memos (mostly on economic policy), offers a similar assessment of Obama this week. Summarizing Obama's political missteps dating back to 2009, Lizza, the magazine's Washington correspondent, writes, "He clung too long to his vision of post-partisanship, even in the face of a radicalized opposition whose stated political goal was his defeat."
Kantor and Lizza are both saying that Obama's entire theory of the presidency was wrong. The bring-us-together motif was a powerful 2008 campaign theme, but it was also Obama's personal governing philosophy, the secret sauce that made him different from other Democrats. Now it has been relegated to the president's greatest-hits album. In the State of the Union, when Obama made a brief, ritualistic appeal to rise above partisanship ("We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction"), he conveyed the sense that he had no expectation that a single resident of Washington would alter his or her behavior.
Reliving the internal economic debates in the White House by reading Kantor and Lizza, I was reminded of what a former Obama adviser told me, "Even now, I am not certain of exactly what he believes on the economy." With no firm moorings as a Keynesian or a deficit hawk, Obama charted a zigzag course on the economy. Lizza identifies a key moment with the economy still misfiring in 2010 when Obama was forced to choose between making the case for a further stimulus or yielding to the clamor for budget cuts. Rather than use his supposedly legendary powers of political persuasion, Obama chose the course of least resistance. He began larding his speeches with lines that Herbert Hoover might have used in 1932: "Americans are making hard choices in their budgets. We've got to tighten our belts in Washington, as well."
In The Obamas, Kantor deftly conveys the First Couple's frustration at their isolation in the White House. The difference is that while Michelle Obama is naturally gregarious, her husband is probably America's first introverted president since Calvin Coolidge. Almost every night after a family dinner, the president retreats to his upstairs office, formally known as the Treaty Room, to review memos. Kantor writes: "Obama almost never made decisions downstairs, around other people ... As a result, many of the important moments of Barack Obama's presidency had no witnesses at all: they took place upstairs, the president silent and alone in his office."
There is no correct decision-making style for a president--neither garrulous meetings nor PowerPoint presentations necessarily achieve better results. But the lonely man in the Treaty Room is a compelling metaphor for the insularity of this presidency. Obama's first chief of staff (Rahm Emanuel) is now mayor of Chicago; his second chief of staff (Bill Daley) was the son of one Chicago mayor and the brother of another. Now, Emanuel, Daley and most of the senior staff (aside from Valerie Jarrett) are gone. In a year when reelection politics trumps governing, it is easy to assume that the current White House configuration under the newly appointed third chief of staff, Jack Lew, is merely a holding pattern until November.
No one is equipped on Inauguration Day for the burdens of the presidency, not even former vice presidents like George H.W. Bush. For all the glib confidence of Mitt Romney with his 59-part economic plan and Newt Gingrich with his since-the-dawn-of-civilization historical vision, either of them would face rocky months and unpleasant surprises in the Oval Office.
Barack Obama is now three years into the world's most grueling ordeal of on-the-job training. As tempting as it may be for Obama to airbrush away his mistakes and to piously blame the hurly-burly of partisan discord in Washington, the nation needs to hear in the months ahead how he thinks a second term would be better or, at least, different.
Obama will probably never be a leader who transforms the nation's political culture. But he does retain the capacity to be a sadder but wiser president.
Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of Yahoo News columns examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.
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