The New York Times has a piece today about Obama’s well know abhorrence of Washington’s schmoozing rituals.
This is one of the things I like about Obama: He actually has real friends, he stands by them when they mess up, and he can’t stand Washington backslapping.
Unfortunately, backslapping is part of the job he took in January, 2009, and his abhorrence of the practice has been harmful to the country, because it has cost us a chance to rein in the deficit.
A colleague of mine and I used to joke about our “fake friends.” We’d be like, “Hey, how are your fake friends today? Did wish your fake friend a happy birthday?”
One of my shortcomings as a reporter is that I didn’t have enough fake friends. I tended to be in touch with people I enjoyed. I’d rather have my lunch with an actual friend, with a “source” I liked, or otherwise with the opinion section of the newspaper. I got more personal satisfaction, but fewer scoops than I might have.
Washington is built, actually on fake friendships. People pretend to be interested in what each others’ kids are doing, how they’re job is going, how their checkup with the cardiologist went, and so forth.
But what they are really doing is establishing relationships so they can get something from each other. In the case of reporters, it’s information they want. Lobbyists want legislation. Politicians want money. And presidents, when it comes to members of Congress, want votes.
Obama had an historic opportunity this year to forge a bipartisan consensus on a means to save the nation from one of the greatest existential perils it has ever faced: the exploding federal debt.
Instead of leading off the year with bold plans to reform Medicare and Social Security – the places where the cuts will eventually have to be made – he produced a budget with token deficit reduction and then had to be dragged by Republicans into bandaging the problem with cuts in discretionary spending that will, BTW, destroy our ability to defend ourselves.
This is where the backslapping problem comes in. Reforming Medicare and Social Security would have taken a lot of it.
When starting this website last year, I read up a little bit on marketing. One of the theories I bumped into was that people in many cases have already made their decisions about, say, what they want to read or buy. The way to market something to them is not to convince them to take something they don’t want, but to confirm them in their view – give them the information they need to make a decision they already want to make.
Similarly, Obama starts with the view that he doesn’t want to engage with Congress. He despizes the schmoozing,
He doesn’t want to make fake friends.
And so his actions this year were merely confirmation for his pre-held conviction. He sought no grand compromise, reluctantly engaged with Republicans only when they threatened to shut down the government or breach the debt ceiling, and then resorted to smacking them around with political vitriol, a practice that will continue now that the campaign season is here.
Because what’s the opposite of back slapping?
Face slapping. Now there’s something this Chicago pol enjoys.