President Barack Obama is finding himself with few friends in Washington.
His former Pentagon chief is criticizing his foreign policy. Longtime political advisers are questioning his campaign strategy. And Democrats locked in tough midterm campaigns don’t want Obama anywhere near them between now and Election Day.
The disenchantment with Obama is in part a reflection of inevitable fatigue with a president entering his final years in office. But some Democrats say it is also a consequence of the president’s insular approach to governing and his preference for relying on a small cadre of White House advisers, leaving him with few loyal allies on Capitol Hill or elsewhere.
“This president is supremely independent,” said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and longtime adviser to President Bill Clinton. “In many ways that is a very good thing. He probably came to the presidency owing less to other people than any president in memory. The risk is that independence can morph into isolation.”
While White House officials dispute the notion of an isolated or weakened president, there’s little doubt that Obama’s standing with the American people and his own party has fallen since his resounding re-election in 2012. Battered by a flurry of crises at home and abroad, the president’s approval rating has hovered near record lows for much of the year. His party is at risk of losing the Senate in the November midterms and not one Democrat locked in a close race has chosen to make a campaign appearance alongside the president thus far.
It’s against that backdrop that some of Obama’s longtime advisers have begun levying unsparing criticism, most notably Leon Panetta, the widely respected former congressman who served as CIA director and defense secretary in Obama’s first term. In a new memoir and a series of interviews, Panetta has taken aim at both Obama’s foreign policy decision-making and overall leadership skills.
Panetta writes that as Pentagon chief, he feared that Obama’s withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq in late 2011 could put that country at risk of becoming “a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S.” The U.S. is now launching airstrikes against a militant group in Iraq, as well as Syria, that Obama administration officials warn could ultimately pose a threat to the West.
But Panetta’s most scathing critique is reserved for Obama’s leadership style. Writing about Obama’s inability to stop deep budget cuts at the Pentagon, Panetta said the episode reflected the president’s “most conspicuous weakness, a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.”
“Too often, in my view, the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader,” Panetta added.
Panetta’s critique echoes regular complaints from lawmakers in both parties who say the president has made little effort to forge relationships on Capitol Hill and often keeps lawmakers out of the loop on decision-making. Indeed, the president rarely makes trips to Capitol Hill or socializes with lawmakers, preferring instead to spend his time with his family and a small team of longtime aides.
The president has repeatedly dismissed the notion that more extracurricular activities, particularly with Republicans, would help him muscle legislation through Congress.
“When I’m over here at the congressional picnic and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family, I promise you, Michelle and I are very nice to them and we have a wonderful time,” Obama said last year. “But it doesn’t prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and blasting me for being a big-spending socialist.”
But the criticism from Panetta and others has suggested that Obama may not only lack a reserve of support outside the administration, but that he may also struggle to command loyalty from those who have advised him most closely.
Beyond Panetta, Obama has endured criticism of his foreign policy this year from two other former Cabinet secretaries: former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On Sunday, Obama also took a hit from his longtime political adviser David Axelrod, who said Obama made “a mistake” when he said last week that his economic policies were on the ballot in November.
“I wouldn’t put that line there,” Axelrod said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
White House advisers and others close to the president have dismissed the flood of criticism and the distance from Democrats as part of the natural arc of the presidency.
“This is very much the product of the six-year itch,” said Anita Dunn, Obama’s former White House communications director. “If you’re sitting in the White House, you put your head down and you do your job and realize that at the end of the day, you still have two more years to do a great deal.”
But Jim Manley, a former senior adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that job may only get harder if Democrats in Washington turn even further away from the president as the race to replace him gets underway.
“The fact of the matter is the president and his team have done a pretty poor job of trying to build of a group of loyal Democrats,” Manley said. “They don’t have too deep of a well to dip into anymore.”
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