Tone Deaf

President Obama’s Style Deficit

The president’s latest political missteps and policy zigzags are mystifying. Lloyd Grove reports.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

President Obama is openly contemptuous of Washington’s alleged obsession with “style points.” And that, perhaps more than anything, explains why he has been scoring so low in recent weeks.

The president’s zigzagging policy on Syria, the Larry Summers nomination debacle, and Monday’s partisan budget speech at the very moment that the nation was reeling from a madman’s shooting spree at the Washington Navy Yard, are only the latest manifestations of a mystifying paradox: Barack Obama, so surefooted when it comes to the politics of campaigning, often seems flatfooted when it comes to the politics of governing.

The president’s insistent above-the-frayishness, his apparent distaste for the grubby business of retail salesmanship in the Beltway bazaar, frequently seems self-defeating. It’s at least a partial explanation (other than the Obama Derangement Syndrome that infects many House Republicans) for his failure to enact popular gun control legislation, immigration reform, and any number second-term agenda items. “Style,” in this case, is shorthand for a flair in manipulating to one’s advantage the unpretty yet necessary process of legislative sausage-making.

“I think that folks here in Washington like to grade on style,” Obama argued defensively on Sunday’s installment of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “And so had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well even if it was a disastrous policy… I’m less concerned about style points. I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right.”

The president was spinning the messy evolution of his Syria strategy. But he could just as easily have been describing the White House’s aimlessly floating trial balloon, begging to be popped, of arrogant former economic adviser Summers as his top choice for Federal Reserve chairman (an echo of the inept launch last year of U.N. ambassador Susan Rice as a candidate for secretary of State), or, for that matter, the president’s decision to go ahead with an ill-timed attack on congressional Republicans for threatening a debt-ceiling battle and a government shutdown--in a speech ostensibly commemorating the fifth anniversary of the financial meltdown--as law enforcement authorities were still coping with the carnage a couple of miles away.

“My take is that on the one hand, he is right that the D.C. Conventional Wisdom echo chamber does grade on style,” Republican strategist Mike Murphy told The Daily Beast in an email, “but on the other hand, the president played the style card right into the White House in 2008. Hard to have it both ways.” The irony, Murphy added, is that “he does like to claim the image of rising above politics, while his operation plays it cynically almost around the clock.” Murphy, who has advised both John McCain and Mitt Romney, admittedly has an ax to grind.

Veteran Democratic strategist and Daily Beast contributor Robert Shrum endorsed Obama’s nonlinear approach to Syria: Ultimately, it avoided the unpredictable consequences of a U.S. missile strike, he argues, while provisionally achieving an agreement with that country’s Russian sponsors to dispose of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons cache. But Shrum is hard-pressed to defend the White House’s handling of Larry Summers.

“I don’t understand it,” Shrum told me, noting that he is a friend of Summers. “If they wanted to appoint Larry [to the Fed], they should have appointed him. If they’d gone ahead and done it, it would have made it much more difficult for Democrats [reportedly led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts] to oppose him under those circumstances. I have no idea what happened.”

In the Obama White House’s recent baffling series of lapses, it’s debatable whether the “right policy” was at issue, but inarguable that the “style” was clumsy. Except for the president’s comments at the top of his budget speech concerning the Navy Yard tragedy, Monday’s made-for-television performance was preempted by the ongoing drama—and widely slammed by what Obama likes to deride as “cable chatter.” The operative phrase on television was “tone-deaf.”

“It’s not even clear what benefit the White House hoped to reap in launching a major fall offensive in the middle of a national and local tragedy that consumed media attention all day,” Politico noted. “Cable networks cut away from Obama’s remarks as soon as he finished talking about the Navy Yard.”

Even on MSNBC, a cable outlet that has been generally sympathetic to the Obama White House (much as Fox News has been generally skeptical), some of the reviews were harsh. Former Florida Republican congressman Joe Scarborough was predictably withering. “It’s a little early to have a lame-duck meltdown,” he said on Tuesday’s Morning Joe program.

Even NBC White House correspondent and political director Chuck Todd could find no silver lining. “I’ve been having this song in my head while watching this White House the last couple of weeks, ‘I Just Can’t Seem to Get It Right Today.’ Their timing’s been off on everything,” Todd said on Morning Joe. Citing Monday’s combative budget speech, he added: “Let’s set aside the optic debate for a minute. Who’s gonna hear their message? That to me would be the reason not to do the event… Who’s listening? What’s the point?... What positive is going to come out of giving that speech?” Todd added that the president, when he suddenly made the surprising decision to ask Congress to authorize a strike on Syria, even blindsided his national security team, which was ill-prepared to sell the new policy.

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“Style points? Seriously? Style points?” demanded Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus on Tuesday, in an op-ed piece on Syria. “As presidential spin, this is insulting. As presidential conviction — if this is what he really believes — it’s scary.”

The president—who, after all, decisively won two terms in the White House against all odds and many Beltway predictions—doubtless finds it easy to dismiss the conventional wisdom marshaled against him. Yet, in his admiration for policy and apparent scorn for politics, there’s an unexpected parallel to another high public official who dominated the national stage more than a decade ago: Al Gore.

The analogy is not perfect. Shrum, who was chief strategist for Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, points out: “He was not a natural politician; he was a learned politician. Bill Clinton is a natural politician. In many ways, Obama’s a natural politician, whether he likes it or not.”

Still, the late, great Marjorie Williams, diagnosing Gore’s “blind spot” in a memorable July 1999 Washington Post op ed, might have been writing about somebody else. “It's hard not to feel a little sorry for Gore, who is smart and likable and experienced and hard-working—all the virtues we claim to like in our leaders. But I think voters are picking up on something genuinely worrisome about the vice president: the essential contempt for politics that may be his fatal flaw.”

Williams concluded that “in shaping policy, he cares deeply—more deeply than many of his peers—about the empirical fairness of the outcome. But moral vanity isn't a prerequisite for this embrace of fairness. It's reasonable for us to ask that our leaders value fairness and that they be accomplished politicians. At a time when Americans who actually vote are becoming an endangered species, we don't need a president who echoes—consciously or not—the widespread conviction that politics is a dirty game. We need one who can show, with integrity and sophistication and even joy, that there is honor to be found in the legitimate exercise of political skill.”

Sound familiar?