Barack Obama has read and been influenced by Robert A. Caro’s classic biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker.” From the evidence, it is far from clear, though, that the president has read Caro’s other books, the latest being the fourth installment of his massive Lyndon B. Johnson biography — “The Passage of Power.” He should immediately read it. It will teach him how to be president.
Maybe I should have written that it will teach him how to be a better president. Where Johnson was strong and unparalleled — personal relationships with much of Washington — Obama is frighteningly weak. Last week I asked a member of the Senate if he knows of anyone who really knows Obama. He said he does not.
Washington is thick with stories about Obama’s insularity and distance. We hear how he does not listen to criticism — he sometimes just walks out of the room — and how he sticks to a tight circle of friends. His usual weekly golf game is mostly limited to the same people — and when he played a round with House Speaker John Boehner, it was treated as an exceptional event. When, for whatever reason, Politico analyzed Obama’s golf outings (June 6, 2011), it found that Obama’s “golf circle has actually gotten much tighter over the past 2½ years” — none of them politicians or, heaven forbid, journalists.
Lyndon Johnson, in contrast, would not think of wasting a golf game on the game itself. That same Politico piece said he “secured Senate votes” for the 1964 Civil Rights Act “while on the links.” Caro agrees with a prominent Johnson backer who called his man “the greatest salesman one on one.” It was this ability that enabled him to win passage of both his civil rights and anti-poverty agendas. Both were historic pieces of legislation, secured by an un-elected president (Johnson had been John F. Kennedy’s vice president) and in a Congress controlled by Southern conservatives. He had no electoral mandate. It was a political tour de force.
Johnson, of course, was a creature of Congress. He knew the key players and, if he didn’t, he made it his business to remedy that. Johnson passed his program one vote at a time. He was not much of a public speaker — awkward and stilted — while Obama is an accomplished orator. The trouble is that when the last echoes of an Obama speech have faded, so has the audience. The masses who cheered for change went home. The politicians then took over. It takes more than a speech for them to embrace change.
But Obama cannot or will not indulge in the sort of face-to-face politicking that Johnson so favored. He has not stroked important contributors — one bundler told me he never hears from Obama. As The New York Times put it recently in an article about his fundraising on Wall Street, Obama himself has “a reputation for being cold at small gatherings.” “I just don’t think he likes us,” one fundraiser is quoted as saying.
The best that can be said for Obama is that he treats everyone with about the same degree of distance. One important Democrat used the term “cuckoo-clock events” to refer to White House receptions where Obama robotically appears, says a minimal amount of words, and then disappears. He does not mingle — or, if he does, it is as little as possible. Bill Clinton, in contrast, was the host from hell. The party never ended.
There are real consequences to Obama’s odd approach to politics. He is not much loved by his own party. He may be respected — he’s clearly smart and impenetrably calm — but you hear few expressions of warmth. The base that the president is now engaged in securing should already be in his thrall. That it is not is partly a reflection of the president’s emotional distance and his lack of political passion.
In 1957, the photographer George Tames snapped four shots of Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, working over the diminutive (and 90-year-old) Sen. Theodore Green. In the first picture, Johnson and Green are simply face to face. By the fourth shot, Green has been backed into a table and Johnson looms over him — physical, intimidating but oh so effective. This was called the Johnson Treatment and it was politics reduced to what it has to be — human relations. Bob Caro knows how it was done. Maybe he’s available for golf.
Richard Cohen’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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