What Is With Our President?

by Jim Geraghty

From the last Morning Jolt of the week:

What Is With Our President?

Contemplating President Obama’s confident – and erroneous – assurance that Ebola was unlikely to reach America, and that if it did, America’s hospitals and doctors were prepared to diagnose and respond immediately — a veteran speechwriter for cabinet officials wrote in:

In the times that I was involved in speeches for various folks in the previous administration they and those around him were highly attuned to hyperbole and statements such the one Obama made about Ebola.  Now people can crack wise about Iraqi intelligence and the like, but from my experience those officials and senior advisers I dealt with always were asking:  “Is this right?” “Should I be saying this?”  “Can I say this? Or should I say be saying it another way?”  “I don’t want to be out on that limb.”   I get no sense that anyone over there [in the Obama White House] ever asks those questions — about speeches, timing of remarks, guests who surround him for said utterances, etc. 

To illustrate his point, as the Ebola case in Dallas and ISIS advance in Iraq and Syria dominated the headlines, President Obama went to Northwestern University in Chicago and offered a speech on the economy, hitting all the familiar notes: student loans, raising the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits.

Pivot to the economy. Again. He also declared, “while good, affordable health care might seem to be a fanged threat to freedom on Fox News, it turns out its ’s working pretty well in the real world.” Polls of the American public say otherwise, Mr. President!

Granted, we don’t want our president panicking on camera when ominous news strikes. But even his defenders would have to admit that Obama increasingly offers strangely muted, disconnected, or listless responses to frightening news developments. The day the plane was shot down over Ukraine, he offered some pro-forma comments before his well-worn infrastructure speech, then continued on to his scheduled fundraisers. He went to Texas for a series of fundraisers but refused to visit the border at the height of the humanitarian crisis of unattended children entering the United States. He denounced the beheading of an American, then immediately headed off to the golf course.

Yesterday we noted Ace’s assessment that Obama says “Nothing to see here, folks, move on” to everything.  There are four possible explanations for Obama’s perpetual, “relax, there’s no real crisis here, we’ve got this” tone, no matter the circumstance…

Explanation One: “No-drama Obama” doesn’t have a “crisis mode.” He’s spent his adult life in so many relatively calm, methodical, slow-paced institutions — academia, state legislature, part-time law career, the U.S. Senate — that he can’t move or work fast. He’s perpetually deliberative, taking his time, getting sucked into “analysis paralysis”, looking for that elusive final piece of information that will clarify it all, ultimately basing his decision upon “what the experts say.” (This means he needs reliable experts – not a HHS Secretary not being honest about the state of Healthcare.gov, a VA Secretary unaware of abuses within his own department, and so on.)

On CNN, at the height of the VA scandal, Gloria Border quoted an unidentified former White House staffer saying, “People don’t like to tell him bad news. Part of it is the no-drama culture.”

On a related note, whatever great analytical ability Obama may have once had, it’s deteriorated… Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker offered a fascinating in-depth article about how the Obama White House makes decisions… that suggested by the time the issue reached the president’s desk, the decision had already been narrowed down to a few similar options. Mickey Kaus summarized:  

The President’s decision-making method–at least as described in the piece–seems to consist mainly of checking boxes on memos his aides have written for him. … He’s asked about including medical malpractice reform in his health care bill, and writes (“in his characteristicaly cautious and reasonable style”) that “we should explore it.”  … He’s presented a plan for a watered-down tax on multinationals or a very watered down tax. He writes “worth discussing.” …

I’m sure Obama is smarter than this. He can’t be an executive who spends his days checking boxes, accepting the choices presented by his aides, never reaching outside them through unconventional channels or reaching unconventional thinkers, never throwing over the framework with which he is presented.

The presidency is on autopilot, with policy and decisions largely set by the staff. Of course, the second-term administration team is considerably weaker than the first-term team. 

Explanation Two: He does recognize how bad things are, but he realizes the only thing keeping his poll numbers above 40 is the public’s short attention span and people’s ability to tune out bad news. So no matter what happens, he HAS to act like it’s no big deal, so that everyone can go about their business. The problem with this theory is that we would see or hear tales of Obama directing a behind-the-scenes crisis response from this White House.

In fact, it’s the opposite; the lower-level folks seem more concerned than the bosses. Eli Lake reports a strange inertia:

Within the American government, the threat was considered serious enough that the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command—the Pentagon’s elite hunter-killers—prepared detailed targeting packages for the group, with the specific locations of the group’s leaders. But those plans never made it to the White House, according to senior U.S. intelligence and Pentagon leaders…

“The senior leadership in the military didn’t want to ask the question when they knew the answer would be ‘no,’” said the senior U.S. intelligence official quoted earlier about why the targeting packages were not sent to the White House in June.

Explanation Three: Obama experienced some sort of psychological breakdown or “snapping” and is now reacting to serious problems in completely inappropriate ways, such as saying out loud how he would advise ISIS, etc. 

Remember back in 2011:

We’re told by a source inside the Times that the paper is preparing a story arguing that Obama no longer finds joy in the political back-and-forth, has seemed increasingly listless to associates, and is generally exhibiting the litany of signs that late-night cable commercials will tell you add up to depression. 

Explanation Four: He’s too wedded to his previous stances and conclusions to realize when he’s made a mistake and adjust his approach. As my speechwriter friend concludes, “When your boss has told you – and the world – that he is the smartest guy in the room (“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director”) and even if you don’t believe it, it’s pretty difficult to tell the smartest guy in the room that he is wrong or perhaps might want to rethink something.  Then again, if the smartest guy in the room didn’t bother to get the memo, let alone read it, then it all makes for the perfect storm.”

The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.