June 7, 2013
We now know why the Obama Justice Department is so exercised about the leak of intelligence about North Korea’s nuclear intentions.
It’s not because a reporter cozened a government employee into betraying a secret he was sworn to protect and then published it. It’s not because the leak jeopardized a rare source high up in the North Korean military. And it’s not because North Korea has a nuclear bomb and is prone to sharing its technology with other sinister actors on the world stage.
No, it’s personal. Obama just doesn’t like the press. “What is it about Obama that he so disdains us?” author and journalist Jonathan Alter asks the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd rhetorically. “Obama is not friendly with the press.”
It’s not just the press either. Obama doesn’t like members of Congress either. He’s missing the schmooze gene,” says Alter. He embarrasses them by not initiating conversations more often and by depriving them of “the thrill of letters from the president.”
Dowd and others point to the seeming irony that the Obama whose “emotional speeches…vaulted him into the Oval Office” now seems unable to form emotional connections with politicians and journalists. But there’s no irony. Obama isn’t emotional when he delivers his speeches; he inspires emotion in those he’s talking to—and it’s not politicians and journalists.*
Of course this isn’t the first time that the media have evaluated presidents and presidential candidates as though they were picking a BFF—Does he really like me? Do I really like him? George W. Bush defeated two clearly superior opponents on the strength of a perception of him as someone you’d like to have a beer with. Much was made of Al Gore’s and Mitt Romney’s supposed social deficiencies. And in a 2008 Democratic debate, it was Obama whose likability was compared favorably with Hillary Clinton’s, prompting Obama’s interjection, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”†
The first months of a president’s second term are an opportune time (opportune as in opportunism) to air personal gripes, especially about a president with whom many of the gripers agree more than they disagree on the things that really matter. With Obama no longer in jeopardy of electoral defeat, critics need no longer fear that negative comments will add admission-against-interest fuel to the fire around the stake to which Republicans would like to tie the president.
I know how they feel, though. All of us are pleased to have the powerful and famous take notice of us. All of us prefer dealing with people who seem to like us and who seem to value what we do.
But likability has been a poor predictor of presidential success. Clinton exuded likability but left a thin legacy, squandering the best opportunity in at least a generation for health care reform and almost losing his presidency over an affair with an intern. George W. Bush projected likability but led us into war in Iraq and Afghanistan, turned a budget surplus into a crippling deficit, and presided over a near collapse of the financial industry.
By contrast, Alter writes in his new book, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, Obama “exude[s] an unspoken exasperation” and a certain hauteur. But he passed health care reform and financial market reform, has a shot at passing immigration reform, led us out of Iraq and is leading us out of Afghanistan.
I’d say he’s likable enough.