President Obama’s abrupt reversal on the matter of his ties to Uncle Omar may be more significant than it first appears. This seemingly minor embarrassment is a clue to the way Obama handles his past, and arguably to his overall management style as well.
On Thursday the White House dropped its 2011 claim that Obama had never met his uncle, Onyango Obama, known as Omar. Only after Onyango Obama testified in a Boston immigration court that the future president had stayed with him for about three weeks just prior to attending Harvard Law School did the White House change its story.
According to presidential press secretary Jay Carney, the initial denial was based on White House staffers consulting “the record,” chiefly the president’s memoir, Dreams from My Father. Nobody consulted with the president himself in 2011 when the issue initially came up, said Carney. Only after Onyango Obama’s court testimony did Carney decide that it was necessary to speak with the president himself. The result was a total reversal of the White House’s earlier claim. Not only had the president stayed with Uncle Omar for several weeks, but they saw each other on numerous occasions during his time in Cambridge. After law school, said Carney, “they gradually fell out of touch.”
This embarrassment might be dismissed by some as a matter of not wanting to bother a busy president with a relatively minor question. A now forgotten incident from six years ago, however, suggests that the case of Uncle Omar is part of a broader pattern.
In February of 2007, early in Obama’s quest for the presidency, a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times raised questions about the accuracy of Obama’s account of his community organizing days in Dreams from My Father. The article suggested that Obama may have exaggerated his role in a battle over the presence of dangerous asbestos at a Chicago public-housing project where he once worked as a community organizer.
The Obama campaign responded aggressively to the story, seeking out people he had worked with as an organizer and soliciting their testimony on his asbestos activism. The twist is that the Obama campaign’s research director, Devorah Adler, was assigned the task of digging up the identities of the pseudonymous characters in Dreams on her own. At the time, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet remarked on the oddity of this procedure. It would have “seemed simpler,” said Sweet, for Adler to ask Obama himself to reveal the identities of the characters in his book.
The failure of the fledgling Obama campaign’s chief researcher to consult with the candidate on one of the first serious challenges to his credentials and veracity cannot be dismissed as a question of a president too busy with more important matters. Clearly, candidate Obama was reluctant to have anyone question him directly about his past, even campaign staffers charged with defending him.
This pattern – essentially identical to the behavior of staffers in the Uncle Omar incident – would explain a lot. The blindsiding of the Obama campaign by the Jeremiah Wright controversy in 2008, for example, would make sense if the candidate had sealed himself off from questioning by aides about his past.
Allahpundit has wondered aloud why the Obama White House should have bothered to hold back the truth about the president’s relationship with Uncle Omar when confessing the connection would have been minimally damaging, if at all. The puzzle is solved if there was a general practice of refraining from questioning Obama about his past, except in the most dire of circumstances (like contradictory testimony in a court of law).
When the 2008 Obama campaign falsely denied my claim that he had been a member of a leftist third-party, it relied on the testimony of his first campaign manager, Carol Harwell. I showed in 2012 that Harwell had been in a position to know better, and that contemporaneous documents (a party membership list and meeting minutes) established beyond any reasonable doubt that Obama had indeed joined the leftist New Party.
Yet the Obama campaign’s behavior makes sense in light of the broader pattern. If Obama had been directly asked about his New Party membership by a staffer, he would either have had to confess it or have been implicated in a damaging lie. Better to let others deal with the issue. That way, any mistakes or misrepresentations could be blamed on the failure of staff to consult with Obama, as happened in the Omar case.
Fortunately for Obama, no reporter has ever asked him directly about his New Party membership. Yet Obama was directly asked during the 2008 presidential debates about his ties to ACORN. In that case, he did clearly lie in response. And while the media failed to call him on it, this is the sort of danger Obama is understandably eager to avoid.
So there are indications that Obama has adopted a policy of walling himself off from direct questioning about his past by those who work for him. This would also be consistent with Obama’s practice of using pseudonyms and compressing character identities in Dreams. By disguising the identities of the characters in Dreams, Obama made it impossible for reporters to interview or trace the background of figures from his past. (Lynn Sweet was one of the first to raise concerns about this.) I argued in Radical-in-Chief, for example, that Obama used character compression to minimize his connection to Greg Galluzzo.
What does all of this have to do with President Obama’s management style? Potentially, quite a bit. There’s been a lot of talk lately about Obama’s insulation from developments within his own administration. Some of this is questionable. It seems likely that Obama knows much more about events in Washington on the night of Ambassador Stevens’ death, and perhaps about the IRS scandal as well, than he is publicly letting on. Yet to the extent that the president makes a general practice of insulating himself from developments within his own administration, the habit may derive from practices Obama adopted during his first presidential campaign.
After all, Obama has responded to criticism about his lack of real world experience by noting that he’s managed a successful national political campaign. Given that, it seems entirely possible that Obama’s standoffishness toward his own subordinates, initially adopted as a technique to contain potential embarrassments from his political past, has stamped his entire management style.
Editor’s Note: This post has been amended since its initial posting.