WASHINGTON President Barack Obama won big.
So why did the moment feel so small?
At his victory scold in the State Dining Room on Thursday, the president who yearned to be transformational stood beneath an oil portrait of Abraham Lincoln and demanded … a farm bill. He also couldn’t resist taking a holier-than-thou tone toward his tail-between-their-legs Tea Party foes. He assumed his favorite role of the shining knight hectoring the benighted: Sir Lecturealot.
“All of us need to stop focusing on the lobbyists and the bloggers and the talking heads on radio and the professional activists who profit from conflict,” he sermonized. (We have met the enemy and they are … bloggers?)
Certainly, the House Republicans who held their breath until the country turned blue acted like foolhardy children on what John McCain called “a fool’s errand.”
The country agreed. So it probably wasn’t necessary for papa to preach.
Sir Lecturealot, who hates selling and explaining and negotiating and cajoling and knocking noggins, always manages to convey tedium at the idea that he actually has to persuade people to come along with him, given the fact that he feels he’s doing what’s right.
Obama says he will now work for an immigration bill and a budget deal with deficit cuts. But as Peter Nicholas and Carol E. Lee pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, the president did not mention his more ambitious goals: hiking the minimum wage, widening access to preschool education, and shoring up bridges and roads.
“Those efforts require bipartisan consensus that may be even more elusive amid the ill will carried over from the budget fight,” they wrote.
McCain, who excoriated the Tea Party zanies and voted with the president, indicated to The Journal that the president had poisoned the well. “A lot of us are resentful that he didn’t negotiate as hard as we think he could have or should have,” he said. He told CNN that if Obama did not “engage” with his adversaries, “obviously you’re not going to be a successful president.”
Democrats, too, chided the president for being the diffident debutante.
“This is a town where it’s not enough to feel you have the right answers,” Leon Panetta, the former congressman, Clinton chief of staff, CIA director and defense chief, pointedly told Washington reporters. “You’ve got to roll up your sleeves, and you’ve got to really engage in the process.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein also urged presidential leadership, noting that Obama “stepped back” partly because he felt “burned” by all the scabrous budget fights. But as Mark Twain said, “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”
And if Obama is anything, he’s a cold cat on a hot stove.
Washington is surpassingly nutty right now, but the founding fathers did build a system designed for factional warfare. When sweet reasonableness doesn’t work, Obama’s default position is didactic disdain. He underuses the fear and charm cards. When he first saw the White House movie theater, he was surprised there were so many seats beyond what the first family would need. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, probably would have built a balcony and auctioned off seats, if he could have.
As Valerie Jarrett told David Remnick in “The Bridge,” Obama’s “uncanny” abilities need to be properly engaged, or he disengages. “He’s been bored to death his whole life,” she said. “He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”
He thinks he can come down from above, de haut en bas, and play the great reconciler, but you can’t reconcile in absentia. You have to be there. You’ve got to be all over these people.
The paradox of Obama is that he believes in his own magical powers, but he doesn’t turn up to use them.
Dowd is a New York Times columnist.
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