Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why doesn't Obama like to schmooze?

By Michael Takiff, Special to CNN
September 4, 2012 -- Updated 2230 GMT (0630 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Criticized for his aloof style, President Barack Obama says he likes to spend time with family
  • Michael Takiff: Obama seems standoffish because he doesn't like to schmooze
  • He says unlike Obama, President Bill Clinton always found time to connect with people
  • Takiff: The way each president has set up his private life depends on his personality

Editor's note: Michael Takiff is the author of "A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him" (Yale University Press). Follow Takiff on Twitter: @MichaelTakiff

(CNN) -- We hire presidents to shoulder for us the weight of the world. Given the size and importance of their job, it's natural that we resent any time they spend not studying, discussing, thinking about or building support for the decisions they must make -- decisions that affect the lives of millions.

How can a president ever feel well-enough informed? How can he turn off his desk light, close up shop and retire to the White House residence to help his children with their homework? Presidents belong to us. If the kids need help with homework, hire a tutor, whose time is not so precious.

Except that it doesn't work that way. Until technology enables us to elect robots to the White House, we're stuck with presidents who, like the rest of us, are human beings, mere mortals who must spend time with family, unwind with friends, sleep, eat, veg out in front of the TV. Indeed, only a robot could perform so demanding a job without time spent away from it.

Almost since he took office, President Barack Obama has faced criticism for a supposedly aloof style that causes him to neglect a key facet of his responsibilities. He lacks the human touch, goes this line of thinking, in a business that demands it. He refuses to attend to the care and feeding of the lawmakers whose votes he needs, and is reluctant to provide simple favors, such as posing for photographs, to the wealthy donors whose money he needs.

Speaking to CNN's Jessica Yellin for the documentary "Obama Revealed: The Man, The President," Obama denied that his apparent standoffishness results from an icy personality: "Sometimes Michelle and I not doing the circuit and going out to dinners with folks is perceived as us being cool. It actually really has more to do with us being parents."

Michael Takiff
Michael Takiff

In other words, while he is America's only president, he is also his daughters' only father; his duty to them demands that he take time out from his duty to his country. And so he makes sure that at 6:30 each evening he's seated at the family dinner table. After the meal, he helps his daughters with their homework.

While the president's devotion to his family is something we can all admire, I wonder if he doth protest too much.

It may be counterintuitive that people of elite status, whether by virtue of elective office or a hefty wallet, are so insecure that they need coddling before they will support a cause they believe in. But we all know that egos require stroking from time to time -- elite ones, perhaps, most of all. It seems that Obama neglects that task less because of his devotion to his family than because of his distaste for the process.

A recent New York Times profile of Obama's closest friend and adviser, Valerie Jarrett, revealed that the White House needlessly snubbed George Soros. Presumably acting at the president's behest, Jarrett turned down the liberal billionaire's request for a private meeting with Obama to discuss the economy. Whether or not that cold shoulder is the cause, Soros and his money are sitting this election out.

With moguls such as the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson bankrolling super PACs on the other side of this tight race, Obama needs all the help he can get. While we may respect the president's disinclination to bow before great wealth, his failure to cultivate Soros may prove to be an expensive mistake.

Bill Clinton, the last president in office with a child of grade-school age, tried to be present in his daughter's life.

Craig Smith, a political consultant who worked for Clinton in Arkansas and Washington, recalled that when he and then-Gov. Clinton would travel for the day out of Little Rock they would start out at the Governor's Mansion: "I'd get there in the morning and the first thing we would do is drop Chelsea off at school. He took Chelsea to school every day. He said, 'Let me give you a piece of advice if you're going to have a life in politics. Take your kids to school in the morning, because you never know what time you're going to get home at night.' "

As president, Clinton did spend time with his daughter during evenings when he could. Like Obama, he helped with the day's homework. When he was out of town, he'd supply the assistance by telephone.

But unlike Obama, Clinton always found time to connect with people.

While the self-contained current president is said to hold only a few friends close, the extroverted former president craves constant human contact. He would spend hours on the phone with members of Congress and his Cabinet, cajoling them on a vote or asking their advice or gaming out their appearance the next day on "Meet the Press."

He also stayed in touch with friends -- from around the country, but particularly from Arkansas. When he couldn't make it to Little Rock to reconnect with home, home would come to him. Old friends would stay overnight at the White House, although they might not sleep much, given that games of hearts with the president would extend into the wee hours of the morning.

As busy as they have been, all presidents have set aside personal time. Many -- Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, both Bushes, Clinton, Obama -- have played golf.

Harry Truman took his daily constitutional and played poker with his pals. John F. Kennedy sailed. Nixon bowled. Ford swam. Jimmy Carter, perhaps the most diligent worker of the bunch, played tennis. Ronald Reagan rode his horse. George H.W. Bush drove his speedboat. His son cleared brush. Lyndon B. Johnson found time for such activities as phoning a Texas clothier to order, in exacting and earthy detail, half a dozen pairs of pants. Nixon spent time, well-lubricated by Scotch whiskey, in Florida with his friend Cuban-American businessman Bebe Rebozo. And, of course, Clinton and Kennedy put aside affairs of state to pursue affairs of a different nature.

Clinton's obsessive need for human interaction led him to cross boundaries of appropriate behavior, and not just with Monica Lewinsky. Much to the consternation of those on the other end of the telephone, Clinton would call at all hours -- late in the evening, even well past midnight.

Lloyd Bentsen, his first secretary of the treasury, turned off his phone rather than endure such intrusions. One Democratic former congressman told me that he would answer the phone, then lay the receiver down as the president talked and the congressman and his wife tried to get back to sleep. Former Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, a key ally of Clinton's, recalled of the late-night communications, "My wife would pick up the phone and felt it was either one of the children who had gotten in an automobile accident or it was Bill Clinton. All the times it was Bill Clinton."

So if members of Congress feel slighted by Obama's lack of attention, they can at least take consolation that he's not keeping them from a good night's sleep.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Takiff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2248 GMT (0648 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT