Cannon to the left of him, cannon to the right of him, cannon in front of him volley and thunder. That’s our president’s position on the political battlefield now, taking it from all sides. And the odd thing, the unique thing in terms of modern political history, is that no one really defends him, no one holds high his flag. When was the last time you put on the radio or TV and heard someone say “Open line Friday—we’re talking about what it is we like best about Barack Obama!” When did you last see a cable talking head say, “The greatness of this man is as obvious as it is unnoticed”?
Is the left out there on the Internet and the airwaves talking about him? Oh, yes. They’re calling him a disappointment, a sellout, a DINO—Democratic in name only. He sold out on single-payer health insurance, and then the public option. He’ll sell you out on your issue too.
The pundits and columnists, dreadful people that they are, call him cold, weak, aloof, arrogant, entitled.
So let’s denounce him again.
Wait—it’s Christmas. Let’s not. There are people who deeply admire the president, who work with him and believe he’s doing right. This week, this column is their forum. They speak not for attribution to avoid the charge of suckupism.
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We start with a note from an accomplished young man who worked with Mr. Obama on the campaign and in the White House. He reminded me this week of a conversation we’d had shortly before the president’s inauguration. “I remember you asked me back in January if I loved my guy. And in light of all that’s happened in this first year, I still do. Even more so. And I also have a strong sense—based not just on polls but on a lot of folks I’ve talked to who don’t always pay attention to politics—that he DOES have that base of people who still love him too.
“It’s hard to detect, because the part of the ‘base’ that’s represented on cable and on blogs is so vocal (and by vocal I mean shrill), but it’s there. I also read it in the letters he gets. Some of them are amazingly poignant and appreciative of what he’s done and what he’s doing. Some of them are tough—very tough—but still respectful and hopeful that he’s doing the right thing. Even if they’re unsure right now, they want him to succeed. . .”
He sees them as a kind of quiet majority, or at least quiet-but-large-group-within-the-electorate.
“[T]hey’re not going to run out and defend him on the blogs or start screaming back at his detractors, because they know its fruitless and they’re sick of all that Washington nonsense anyway.” They want him to cut through the mess and “get things done for them. And they’re willing to give him that chance. Still.”
The president, he suggested, tends toward the long view and the broad view. “Here’s what I know about him. He still has this amazing ability to tune out the noise from Washington, read the letters from the people, listen to their concerns, listen to his advisors, hear both sides, absorb all the information, and make the decision that he honestly feels is right for the country.”
He does this “without worrying too much about the polls, without worrying too much about being a one-term president. He just does what he thinks is right. And that consumes a lot of his time. Most of it, in fact.”
He is aware that Obama is “perceived as alternately too weak and too Chicago, too left and too right, too willing to compromise and too beholden to his majority, too detached and too much meddling in too many things.” The administration needs “to do better in resetting the story and telling it the way we want it told.” But “the fractured, petty, biased-towards-the-sensational media today makes that more difficult than ever before.”
He knows now, he said, “how the Bushes and the Clintons must have felt,” and wonders “if that just happens to all White Houses. I don’t know. But I do know that we have some very big, very unique problems right now. And we live in a very cynical . . . time where it’s difficult to maintain the benefit of the doubt as you’re navigating through the storm.” They’re giving it their best. “Lots of good people are trying. We won’t fix it all, but I think we’ll succeed (and think that in some cases, we already have!) at fixing a good deal.”
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Another staffer spoke warmly of President Obama’s warmth. “He’s interested in who you are, and it’s not manufactured.” He sometimes finds himself briefing the president before events. “I know he’s just come out of a meeting on Afghanistan” and maybe the next meeting isn’t as important, but he wants to know who they are and where they’re from and has a gift for “making them feel important.”
“He’s a young president, young in terms of youthful.” Sometimes people come in to meet him and find “they came for a photo and he gives them a game” of pick-up basketball on the White House court. “Those are the things from a human perspective that make him so accessible. Accessible is the right word. He’s emotionally available.”
He is appreciative of his staff’s efforts. “When you’re working hard for your country and you know [he cares] it is huge.” How does he show his thanks? “It’s a little like a basketball game—‘Thanks for that, I know what you did.’ It’s not a note or a pat or a call, it’s a guy-to-guy thank you, ‘That’s cool, that’s good.’ You think, ‘My coach got that I worked my ass off.’”
“As a person he is just an incredible human being who you can’t help but love.”
A third Obama staffer spoke of last week’s senior staff dinner, at which the president went around the table and told each one individually “what they meant to him, and thanked the spouses for putting up with what they have to put up with.” He marks birthdays by marching in with cakes. He’ll walk around the White House, pop into offices and tease people for putting their feet on the desk. “Sometimes he puts his feet on the desk.” He’s concerned about much, but largely unruffled. “He’s not taken aback by the challenges he has. He seems more focused than he’s ever been. He’s like Michael Jordan in that at the big moments everything slows down for him.” He’s good in the crunch.
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I end with a story told to me by an old Reagan hand who, with another former Reagan administration official, was being given a private tour of the White House by Michelle Obama. This was last summer. Mrs. Obama led the two through the halls, and then they stopped by the Lincoln bedroom. They stood in the doorway, and then took a step inside, but went no deeper. Everything looked the same, but something was different. “We don’t allow guests to stay in this room anymore,” Mrs. Obama explained. She spoke of it as a place of reverence. They keep it apart, it’s not for overnights.
Unspoken, but clearly understood by the Reagan hands, was: This is where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. A true copy of it is here, on the desk. He signed it: “Abraham Lincoln.” The Reagan hands were impressed and moved. It is fitting and right that the Lincoln bedroom be held apart. It always should have been. Good, they thought. Good.