Mark Shields: Great presidents enjoy politics

Mark Shields

On the consensus list of the most significant American presidents following George Washington, there is a common trait. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman — each of these great leaders was first a very good politician who actually enjoyed politics.

Lincoln, who served four terms in the Illinois Legislature, where he helped to move the state’s capital from Vandalia to Springfield, conveyed to people that he understood their struggles and he stood squarely on their side, in contrast with Woodrow Wilson, who professed his love for mankind in the abstract but preferred to avoid the company of ordinary human beings, who frequently sweat and burp.

Barack Obama, painful as it may be for his devoted admirers to admit, did not really much like politics or the company of the people who practice politics. He was not good at politics other than getting himself elected, at which he was exceptionally good.

This is captured in a story told to me by one of the people who was in a private meeting with Obama. In Obama’s first term — when Democrats in Congress were being called upon to cast politically difficult votes on such controversial matters as national health care, an economic stimulus and bailing out and regulating Wall Street — one Democratic senator who had voted with Obama at considerable political risk needed some personal presidential attention wherein Obama would tell him repeatedly how much he valued the senator’s courage and support in backing the White House.

When the senator, partially assuaged, left, an exasperated Obama asked rhetorically: “Why are people so damn needy?” If you’re so self-contained that you don’t understand someone’s being needy, you’re destined to be a Woodrow Wilson rather than a Lincoln or an FDR.

We learned from Donna Brazile, who once was the interim chair of the Democratic National Committee (which, like the RNC, is totally under the thumb of the White House when the president is a party member), that President Obama, who had raised close to $2 billion for his own White House campaigns, left the Democratic Party some $24 million in debt after the 2012 election. Rather than use the magic of his office or his personal magnetism to recruit Democratic candidates, Obama mostly passively presided over eight years in office when the Democrats suffered losses of 62 House seats, nine Senate seats, control of 13 state legislatures, 12 governorships and a whopping 959 state legislative seats. When Obama left office Jan. 20, there were more elected GOP state legislators than at any time since the founding of the Republican Party.

Maybe an anecdote says it best. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory, North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, later to win three U.S. Senate terms, managed to win election to the House.

One day on the House floor, an excited page told Dorgan, within earshot of those nearby, that President Reagan was calling him on the phone in the House cloakroom. Dorgan took the call, in which President Reagan was warm and personal. Reagan was obviously reading from a card, but he called Dorgan by name and asked for Dorgan’s support of his budget. As Dorgan explained, his colleagues immediately began treating him with a new deference. “I dined out on that one phone call for six months,” he laughed.

I have never heard a comparable story about President Obama. Politics, as Democrats have painfully learned, is a personal business.

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