Policy or Politics? Obama Learns the Hard Way He Has to Do Both

Glad-handing isn't President Obama's favorite activity, but he needs to connect with voters, many of whom view him as too cool and professorial AP

Glad-handing isn't President Obama's favorite activity, but he needs to connect with voters, many of whom view him as too cool and professorial.
AP/Matt Rourke

After 21 months in office, President Obama clearly knows what he should have known coming into office, and what previous presidents probably told him, but he didn't heed.

Policy goes hand-in-hand with playing the complicated, nuanced and sometimes dirty game of Washington politics.

In Peter Baker's illuminating New York Times article, Mr. Obama admitted that he got the politics/policy equation wrong.

"Given how much stuff was coming at us, we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right," he told Baker. "There is probably a perverse pride in my administration -- and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top -- that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular. And I think anybody who's occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can't be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion."

The Obama team lost the spin battle, and consequently will lose lots of Democratic seats on November 2. Baker reported that Mr. Obama was overconfident in his agenda and in his ability to achieve bipartisan support for his policies. 

"Obama is preaching patience in an impatient age," Baker wrote. "One prominent Democratic lawmaker told me Obama's problem is that he is not insecure -- he always believes he is the smartest person in any room and never feels the sense of panic that makes a good politician run scared all the time, frenetically wooing lawmakers, power brokers, adversaries and voters as if the next election were a week away."

Baker wrote that Mr. Obama is not one for small talk or glad-handing like Bill Clinton, and that he insulates himself with a small circle of friends and advisors.

In other words, the president lacked sufficient situational awareness to navigate the post-election reality of Washington politics.

In the movie "Chinatown," the story ends tragically. At the end of the film, a policeman tells the Jack Nicholson character, "Forget it, Jake -- it's Chinatown." For Mr. Obama, changing his style will likely yield better results than trying to bend Washington politics to his logical will.

More from the Profile: Obama Says There Is "No Such Thing as Shovel-Ready Projects"


Daniel Farber is editor-in-chief of CBSNews.com. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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    Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of CBSNews.com, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.

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