Losing the room
On the most deadly day in Washington, D.C. since Sept. 11, 2001, with the capital reeling over the sadly familiar scene of a mass shooting by a madman, the chief executive stepped to the microphones and captured the heartbreak.
It wasn’t the chief executive of the nation. It was Dr. Janis Orlowski, the chief operating officer of MedStar Washington Hospital Center, where three of those injured were being treated.
“There’s something evil in our society that we as Americans have to work to try and eradicate,’’ she said, her voice stoic but laced with emotion. On the day when she announced only hours earlier that she had submitted her resignation to take another job, she continued: “There’s something wrong here when we have these multiple shootings, these multiple injuries. There is something wrong, and the only thing that I can say is we have to work together to get rid of it. I would like you to put my trauma center out of business. I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots.”
Calling it “a challenge to all of us,” she concluded: “This is not America.”
President Barack Obama also gave a speech Monday, talking at the White House while the drama unfolded at the supposedly secure Navy Yard nearby. He could have posted his original remarks on the White House website and replaced them with a cri de coeur on gun control, or comfort for the shaken city. The 12 who died were, after all, under his aegis as workers in a federal building.
But, jarringly, the president went ahead with his political attack, briefly addressing the slaughter before moving on to jab Republicans over the corporate tax rate and resistance to Obamacare.
Just as with the address to the nation on Syria last week, the president went ahead with a speech overtaken by events. It was out of joint, given that the Senate was put into lockdown and the Washington Nationals delayed a night game against the Atlanta Braves, noting on its website, “Postponed: Tragedy.”
The man who connected so electrically and facilely in 2008, causing Americans to overlook his thin résumé, cannot seem to connect anymore.
With a shrinking circle of trust inside the White House, Obama is having trouble establishing trust outside with once reliable factions: grass-roots Democrats and liberals in Congress.
As Peter Baker wrote in The Times, the president is finding himself increasingly “frustrated” by the defiance of Democrats who are despairing of his passive, reactive leadership.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana on the banking committee, told Jonathan Martin for Politico in February, after he scraped through to a second term, that the president was not engaged with the Hill, that he had not met with Obama at the White House since 2010, and that he was sorely missing aides like Rahm Emanuel, who tirelessly worked and stroked Democrats in Congress.
Tester was one of three Democrats who spurned the president on his favorite to run the Federal Reserve, Larry Summers. The White House didn’t call Tester until Friday, when it was too late; Summers was allowed to twist in the wind, like Susan Rice before him.
Top Democrats who used to consider Obama one cool cat now muse that he’s “one weird cat,” as one big shot put it.
Obama still has a secret weapon: congressional Republicans, who might yet shut down the government or cause a cataclysmic default and make the president look good.
But, for now, puzzlement grows over the contrast between Obama’s campaign leaps and his governing lassitude. Obama biographer Richard Wolffe notes that the 2012 campaign had some of the same problems with leadership and direction, but looked good compared with the mid-20th-century Romney crowd, “who couldn’t get an app to work.”
“I don’t know who they think they’re talking to or what they think they’re trying to say,” said Wolffe, whose new book is “The Message: The Reselling of President Obama.” “The president is a very muddled and entrenched figure who needs to get out of a defensive crouch and get some fresh ideas.”
Unlike Bill Clinton, who excels at boiling down complex arguments to simple ones, Obama prefers to wallow in the weeds, reminding people that he’s the smartest man in the room and expecting their support because he feels he is only doing what’s complicated and right.
But, funnily enough, as Wolffe points out, “he’s more like the Clintons than I ever thought this White House would be — with different factions and power bases and personal rivalries.”
ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked the president about criticism of the administration’s serpentine Syria policy, citing a frustrated backer of the plan to strike Syria, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Corker said that the careering around left Obama diminished as president, and he observed that the president seemed caged in the role, like he wanted to “slip the noose.”
“I think that folks here in Washington like to grade on style,” Obama said dismissively of his Syria critics.
But why is it so often the president’s style to be unable to sell the substance — even on issues where most people agree with him?
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.