Memo to Obama: It's business, not personal

How does one explain the plummeting poll numbers for Barack Obama? Most people would point to the disarray and consequences of ObamaCare, the IRS scandal, the border crisis, the collapse of Iraq, the VA scandal, the impotent reaction to Russia’s seizure of Crimea, chronic long-term unemployment, and a host of nonsensical distractions staged by the White House to distract from all of the above and more. Last month, polls showed a majority of Americans thought Obama lacked the necessary leadership for his job, and rated his competence below that of George W. Bush at a similar point in their presidencies. That came just 19 months after Obama won re-election.

How does Obama explain rising opposition to his performance and his policies? Republicans are just big meanies that would otherwise love his agenda, or something:

In recent days, though, he has taken that message a step further. He has suggested on multiple occasions that Republicans aren’t just opposing him out of partisanship, but out of personal animus or spite.

What I do worry about is that, right now, we got a Republican Party that seems to only care about saying no to me,” Obama said in an interview with ABC two weeks ago. And here’s Obama at a speech Wednesday in Denver: “Republicans in Congress right now have shown over and over they’ll do anything to rig the system for those at the top or to try to score political points on me…”

Then, later in the day at a press conference on immigration: “If I sponsor a bill declaring apple pie American, it might fall victim partisan politics.”

In a speech in Dallas on Thursday, he added, “It’s not clear how it is that Republicans didn’t seem to mind when President Bush took more executive actions than I did. Maybe it’s just me they don’t like, I don’t know.”

And later that day at a fundraiser in Austin: “You’ve got one party whose main goal seems just to say no: Say no to immigration reform. Say no to raising the minimum wage. … Say no to equal pay for equal work. Don’t just say no to doing something about climate change; just deny climate change. And definitely say no to me.”

It’s not the first time that Obama has tried this strategy to deflect criticism and delegitimize calls for accountability. He tried doing something similar in his first midterm cycle, which … didn’t exactly turn out well for Democrats. At that time, Obama still had fairly high personal-quality ratings in polls on honesty and leadership, too. Even if he didn’t actually do much heavy lifting on courting Congress, the perception was that he was in charge and displaying leadership.

These days, that perception has vanished, and even the New York Times has begun to take notice, calling Obama “restless”:

In a summer when the president is traveling across the country meeting with “ordinary Americans” under highly choreographed conditions, the Rome dinner shows another side of Mr. Obama. As one of an increasing number of late-night dinners in his second term, it offers a glimpse into a president who prefers intellectuals to politicians, and into the rarefied company Mr. Obama may keep after he leaves the White House.

Sometimes stretching into the small hours of the morning, the dinners reflect a restless president weary of the obligations of the White House and less concerned about the appearance of partying with the rich and celebrated. Freewheeling, with conversation touching on art, architecture and literature, the gatherings are a world away from the stilted meals Mr. Obama had last year with Senate Republican leaders at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington.

As Mr. Obama once said about the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky: “Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”

Basically, Obama has shrugged off dealing with his opposition entirely. That may give him some personal satisfaction, but it’s hardly commendable for a President to disengage so thoroughly — and let’s not forget that Obama was barely engaged from the beginning. It took nearly two years for Obama to meet with McConnell in the first place.

Obama’s also disengaging from allies, as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour reported last night. Former German defense minister and Angela Merkel confidante Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said that the crisis between the two allies over espionage efforts has largely exploded because Obama doesn’t bother to communicate with his allies on much of anything:

Asking the CIA station chief to leave is “a serious matter,” but one that was necessary, he said, “because there was no reaction in the last couple of months from Washington.”

President Obama, he said, is “not seemingly capable to communicate properly on an eye-to-eye level with other heads of state.”

Case in point: The tapping of Merkel’s phone.

“[President Obama] knew it already last summer; what do you do in such a moment? You pick up the phone, you call the Chancellor, tell her, ‘Well, we messed up; let’s try to fix it.’ Didn’t happen.”

“After that, she campaigned, here at a campaign in Germany, defending the U.S. after the NSA revelations. It was a high risk for her.”

“And then the press revealed the phone tapping of Angela Merkel’s … cell phone.”

“Did he call then? No, it was her calling.”

Par for the course with “Mr. I Me My,” as Ron Fournier calls Obama:

Even Democrats are starting to tire of their president sounding less like a leader than a kindergartener – whiny (“They don’t do anything except block me and call me names”), petulant (“So sue me”) and self-absorbed (“I .. me … my”).

“The bear is on the loose!” Obama says whenever he shows up at a coffee shop, diner or bar to mingle with voters. These events are carefully managed so as to not look carefully managed – a gimmick in any president’s bag of tricks. But with Obama, the photo opportunities ring false.

First, he piously claims to be above such pettiness. “I am not interested in photo opps,” he said amid calls to personally attend to the immigration crisis on the Texas border.

Second, the White House has a habit of making the mingling about Obama. “I think frankly we’ve all been through a cold and bitter winter and the bear has cabin fever,” explained Obama friend and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. “His cabin is a little bit bigger and harder to escape than most.”

Pity the president? No. In fact, White House officials, stop talking about him. And, Mr. President, put a muzzle on “I,” “me” and “my.”

In my column for The Week, I describe the “Republican meanies” narrative as just another way to shift blame –and shift attention away from Obama’s incompetence. In response to Obama’s insistence that criticism is all personal, I remind readers of a little recent history:

Well, boo hoo. Most of us can still recall that Bush’s critics — including then-Senator Obama — didn’t much like him either. They routinely derided him as an incompetent after Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq civil war in 2006, claimed that he wanted to impose the “unitary executive” as president (a threat to the balance of powers that Democrats curiously forgot after 2009), and hounded him for asking for resignations from a handful of U.S. attorneys, demanding accountability from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and demanding an investigation of the White House itself. Yet even that didn’t stop Bush from working with a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a budget that same year, and to deal with issues related to the war in Iraq, or to revamp the military-commissions system for detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Obama, on the other hand, has mostly moped after losing the House in the 2010 midterms. Like most politicians, Obama likes to fashion opposition arguments into straw men. Most politicians use that as a strategy to leverage public opinion. Obama has used it to ignore half of Congress. His detachment has become legendary; while the border crisis festered, Obama shrugged off demands to visit the border as an unnecessary “photo op.” Instead, Obama played pool with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — for the cameras! — and attended fundraisers in Dallas and Austin without traveling to the southernmost part of Texas even once. …

Add this to the insistence that Obama knew nothing about the ghastly fraud within the VA, and the professions of shock at the collapse of Iraq, and the American ship of state looks rudderless. Almost a month ago, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that voter assessment of Obama’s competency put him below Bush at nearly the same point in his presidency, and that a majority of 54 percent had no confidence in Obama’s leadership. Chuck Todd noted at the time that this poll result meant, “essentially, the public is saying your presidency is over.”

Obama wants the increasingly disenchanted public to believe that criticism of his actions have no basis in reality, that they are entirely personal attacks. To paraphrase The Godfather, though, poll results show that it’s business, not personal — and Obama looks as though he’s not interested in doing business with Capitol Hill, or taking care of business anywhere else.

Whining isn’t leadership. Americans want a competent, engaged executive in the White House, not someone who refuses to work with political opposition out of pique and then whines about how people don’t like him. Don’t expect the “woe is he” campaign to brighten up Obama’s leadership or honesty polling assessments any time soon.