Both The New York Times and The Washington Post used President Obama's departure for Hawaii as occasion to suggest that the president will be entering the second half of his term with a greater focus on the human side of governing. That this speculation seems to be based on little more than his desire to meet with leaders of both parties at Camp David shows how much of a "schmooze deficit," as the Post put it, Obama seems to be running.
Both these articles depict Obama's insularity as a by-product of his cerebral and self-sufficient nature. But this ignores the fact that Obama's political trajectory was fueled by flawless networking and socializing. He found powerful mentors and tapped into their Rolodexes. He acted as the bridge between different groups -- a prime network position that allowed him to control the communication between constituencies while earning trust. In the Illinois State Senate, he cemented relationships by organizing poker games with members, lobbyists and political power brokers.
If the First Networker has lost his touch, it is because unlike, say, Bill Clinton, for whom schmoozing is as natural and essential as breathing, Obama's networking has always seemed a means to an end. Once that end -- the Oval Office -- was attained, the means lost its urgency. But the "schellacking" that his party took in the midterm elections, his own upcoming reelection campaign, and his desire to succeed in the job may well have caused Obama to redefine his "end" and return, if grudgingly, to his old skills.
It is wise that Obama's vacation reading list includes a Reagan biography. Like Obama, Reagan greatly valued his privacy and was not naturally gregarious. But he was also a master of the handwritten note and the personal relationship. Reagan knew that at the end of the day that politics, even (and perhaps especially) at the global level, is ultimately about people. As Obama looks to get his groove back, Reagan may be his most accessible role model.
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