Some time ago I contrasted the reaction a conservative would get if he were in the same room with the two most consequential politicians of the 1990s, Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.
If you were in a room with Bill Clinton, he would discover the one issue out of 100 on which you agreed; he would probe you with questions, comments, suggestions; and he would tell you that you enabled him to understand it far better than he ever had before.
If you were in a room with Rudy Giuliani, he would discover the one issue out of 100 on which you disagreed; he would ask pointed questions and pepper you with objections; he would tell you that you are wrong on the facts and wrong on the law, and that you needed to admit you were utterly mistaken.
The difference is partly a matter of personality and temperament, and of regional style: Southern affability, New York prickliness.
But there’s also an underlying similarity. Both Clinton and Giuliani are always curious about what other people think, determined to probe beneath the surface to understand what they really care about, sensitive to find areas of both agreement and disagreement.
They’re good at reading people, an essential quality for an executive and especially for a president. Recent presidents have had that quality in varying degrees.
Clinton, as indicated, has an immense desire to win people over. Daniel Halper’s bestselling “Clinton, Inc.,” shows how he went about winning the affection and respect of the Bush family.
The two Presidents George Bush, aware that presidents have the greatest leeway in foreign affairs, both devoted immense psychic energy in establishing relationships with foreign leaders.
George W. Bush admits in his memoir “Decision Points” that he initially misjudged Vladimir Putin. But he established close personal rapport with leaders from wildly different backgrounds, from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Brazilian President Lula da Silva.
As for George H. W. Bush, just about everyone now recognizes the brilliance of his diplomacy in response to the invasion of Iraq and the breakup of the Soviet Union. That diplomacy depended on shrewd reading and handling of literally dozens of foreign leaders.
The seemingly aloof Ronald Reagan developed his capacity to understand negotiating partners, as his definitive biographer Lou Cannon made clear, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild negotiating with studio bosses.
Reagan deployed that ability in establishing productive relations with allies such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with whom he was by no means always in agreement, and with adversaries such as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose character, strengths and weaknesses he shrewdly assessed.
The ability to read other people comes more easily if you’re interested in others, curious to learn what makes them tick. It comes harder or not at all if you’re transfixed with your image of yourself.
Which seems to be the case with Barack Obama. Not only is he not much interested in the details of public policy, as Jay Cost argues persuasively in a recent article for the Weekly Standard. He is also, as even his admirers concede, not much inclined to schmooze with other politicians, even his fellow Democrats.
That goes double for Republicans. House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, is one of the most transparent and least guileful politicians I’ve encountered. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy and liberal Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., had no difficulty reaching agreement with him on the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.
But Obama has gotten nowhere with him. The president blew up the 2011 grand bargain negotiations by raising the ante late in the game; later budget agreements were left to Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Obama has taken to explaining Republican opposition as the result of “fever” or mental delusion.
Obama is also known to have frosty relations with most foreign leaders. He used to claim to be close to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That hasn’t prevented ErdoGan from sidling up to the Muslim Brotherhood and exhibiting blatant anti-semitism.
Obama critics have pointed out his fondness for the first person singular. He said “I,” “me,” or “my” 63 times in his 1,631-word eulogy for Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye. He spoke twice as long about his own family experiences as the heroism for which Inouye was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani succeeded in large part because they were curious about other people different from themselves. Barack Obama prefers to look in the mirror.